By Chuck Williamson
At one point during Grace of Monaco’s punishingly torpid first half, Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) inadvertently blurts out a withering complaint that could double as the film’s unofficial credo. Besieged by scandal, political intrigue, and Olivier Dahan’s pendulous camerawork, Kelly holds counsel with her husband’s chaplain and closest advisor, Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella). War is imminent, and the vagaries of European diplomacy — to say nothing of her less-than-ideal marriage to Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) — have become too much to bear. She puckers her ruby-red lips into an exasperated frown, tosses her pale arms into the air, and practically crumples into a pile of ready-to-wear Dior. Soft, voluminous light spills through the palatial windows of her Monacan estate, casting a halo-like sheen around Kidman’s golden ringlets — a quasi-celestial figure plucked straight out of a perfume ad. With a straight face and dewy eyes, Kelly gravely intones to her confidant, “Why does everything have to be so complicated?” Cue the canned laughter and self-reflexive wink to the audience.
Stumbling in the wan shadow of La Vie en Rose, which had the temerity to turn Edith Piaf into a crude agglomeration of histrionic snarls and tics, Dahan’s latest exercise in biopictorial reductionism snips away at such unsightly “complications” (psychological, historical, geopolitical) in service of its shapeless and skin-deep stab at Oscar-hungry prestige. It pulverises Grace Kelly’s (heavily fictionalised) life story into a gauzily-textured soft-focus smear: reductive, inert, atrociously directed, with a tendency to spell out all of its subtext in forty-foot block lettering. For all the critical vitriol flung in its direction since its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Grace of Monaco still manages to impress with its thematic frivolity and blank-eyed vacuity, the crushing tedium of Arash Amel’s screenplay and fumble-thumbed imprecision of Olivier Dahan’s direction. Not even Peter Bradshaw’s now-legendary hyperventilations — or mine, for that matter — can adequately cover its wet-sock ineptitude. Earning its reputation with each wheezing gust of bullshit, Grace of Monaco is as airy and insubstantial as a vaporous fart wafting through the well-trod corridors of half-assed fairy-tale deconstructions, too tepid and banal to qualify as camp, too dumb and disastrous for the danger-averse Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Part of the problem stems from the way Dahan and Amel reframe Kelly’s post-Hollywood ascent into the upper echelons of European royalty as a tragic paean to domestic martyrdom, twisting her story into a “stand by your man” narrative where political agency goes hand-in-hand with marital capitulation. Kidman plays Grace Kelly as a brassy American interloper, smack-talking Aristotle Onassis (Robert Lindsay) and duking it out with her husband on matters of European geopolitics, whose ascendance as a purifying political force drives her to refashion herself into a Stepfordised surrogate. But what other option does she have? As her husband squares off with Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern), who threatens the principality with war if it does not relinquish its sovereignty and stop functioning as a tax shelter for monied French citizens and international businesses, Princess Grace commits herself to the sort of powder-puff training regimen usually reserved for RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants. With the aid of an etiquette and compartment coach (Derek Jacobi, in a lip-smackingly camp turn), Princess Grace fritters away the final vestiges of Hollywood stardom (to say nothing of the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie) and submits herself to the proverbial role of a lifetime: dutiful wife, princess consort, political chess-piece, and patron saint of tax cheats. She becomes, in other words, the literal “grace” of Monaco, a saintly slip of a thirty-something girl who smiles on cue, drapes herself in haute couture, and happily leans into the limitations of her passive political role. Turning into a brain-dead Pygmalion during its second act, Grace of Monaco depicts Kelly as a woman whose experience within the machinery of Hollywood’s “dream factory” equips her with the skills necessary to rid Monaco of that Gallic mustache-twirler and finally make the world safe for tax-evading jag-offs everywhere. It is, in short, a sloppy-kissed hagiography that enshrines its heroine’s doe-eyed subservience and finds solace in her plasticised smile.
Meanwhile, Dahan tries to mitigate some of this silliness with a handsome — if characteristically crude and clumsy — recreation of big-budget studio-era aesthetics, striving for the bold color palettes and soft visual textures of an old-fashioned three-strip Technicolor spectacular. He pulls out all the stops: lush photography, lavish sets, vaselined close-ups, thunderous music stings, and a veritable flood of blinding, amber-hued light. At first blush, this self-conscious retreat into Hollywood artifice seems to function as a formal counterpoint to the way Grace Kelly’s real-life marriage deviated from fairy tale convention, a subversive appropriation of the glitzy golden age aesthetic that works in tandem with Frank Langella’s endless bloviation about how “life is not a fairy tale.” But Olivier Dahan is no Douglas Sirk — and as his camera terrorises Nicole Kidman, hurtling toward her agonised face like a bathos-seeking missile, we come to realise the crushing superficiality of his secondhand aesthetic, to say nothing of the way it underscores the film’s bone-deep conservatism and makes its already-floundering drama even more dry and airless.
Grace of Monaco reaches its knee-slapping crescendo during a royal banquet held in support of Monacan independence, where Princess Grace barfs out a Big Rousing Movie Speech that bears eerie similarities to Julianne Moore’s mush-mouthed self-affirmations from [safe]. In front of General de Gaulle himself (who gets booed and heckled by the attendees as if he were Ric Flair heeling out at a WWE house show), Kelly launches into a teary-eyed celebration of the wastrels, tax-dodgers, and corporations-as-people occupying her humble Mediterranean principality. Heart-warming stuff. Cue the sweeping orchestral score, the slow clap, and another unmanned torpedo of a close-up lunging toward Kidman’s watery eyes — and wouldn’t ya know it? Charles de Gaulle’s small heart grew three sizes that day — and then the true meaning of Monacan independence came through! Cut to: a medium shot of Nicole Kidman gazing beatifically toward the camera, enthroned upon her bamboo folding chair and surrounded by the soft glow of studio floodlights, a Hollywoodised saint posing against the bustling Paramount backlot. That plasticised smile returns, as empty and meaningless as everything else in Dahan’s kitschy, blithely tone-deaf vision of high-glam martyrdom.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.