Grace of Monaco probably isn't the worst film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, but the opening night movie premiered to the boos that the festival itself is famous for. And that's not surprising. The film, which stars Nicole Kidman as actress turned Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, is ridiculous and a touch offensive, and Cannes is an event where people's love for cinema goes both ways; the presence of a movie star isn't enough to stop viewers from expressing their displeasure.
Written by Arash Amel and directed by Olivier Dahan (La Vie en Rose), Grace of Monaco is not a biopic, but a "fictional account inspired by true events" that happened to Kelly after she married Prince Rainier III. Invented stories about historical figures can be tricky ("What this book presupposes is... maybe he didn't," as Owen Wilson's character astutely said in The Royal Tenenbaums), since they involve putting a personal interpretation on a real life, saying more about the storyteller than the subject. And the spin that Grace of Monaco gives to its subject is that "princess" was her greatest role.
Unless you have a deep patriotic investment in Monaco, that's a difficult conclusion to swallow, since the film, which will be released in the United States by the Weinstein Company at a not-yet-known date, makes being married to a royal look thankless, lonely, and full of sacrifices, and effectively paints the country as a playground for the wealthy and obnoxious.
The movie begins with Grace getting a (nonfictional) offer from Alfred Hitchcock for the lead role in Marnie. Lectured on protocol by lady-in-waiting Madge Tivey-Faucon (Parker Posey), separated from her husband (Tim Roth) by his work, she is depicted as an unhappy housewife on the most glamorous of scales. ("This is not America, Grace!" Rainier snaps, after she expresses a controversial opinion at a party. "People don't just speak their minds!")
Grace considers a return to the screen and to her art in Hitchcock's offer, but then Monaco ends up in a face-off with France over its status as a tax haven, and Grace finds that her desire to act could be used as leverage against her husband. There's an odd foray into espionage and conspiracy as Grace considers and then discards the idea of divorce, and suggests to Rainier in an unintentional laugh line that they could just "buy a nice farmhouse in Montpelier and watch each other grow old." But in the end, her children need her, her husband needs her, and Monaco needs her. So, counseled by her priest (Frank Langella) and a trustworthy aristocrat (Derek Jacobi), she does some princess training and saves the day.
It's regressive and silly, with Grace practicing royal shows of emotion off of flashcards, the final one being the appropriate composure for "Her Serene Highness," but Grace of Monaco is at least sumptuous in its outfits and settings, and there's a weird power to Kidman's breathy, artificial performance. The camera sometimes zooms in so close to her face that we can only see fragments — the tear winding down her cheek, the stunned eyes, like a video installation on the wall of some museum rather than a movie. It fits in the latest of Kidman's adventures in camp, from the overblown Hemingway & Gellhorn to the arty Stoker and the completely nuts Paperboy. These films may not all be good, but they're not boring.
A much better actual biopic premiered at Cannes the day after Grace of Monaco: Mr. Turner, the latest film from Mike Leigh (Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky), about the last 15 years in the life of British artist J. M. W. Turner, who painted striking landscapes and marine scenes, growing more experimental as he got older.
Mr. Turner is essentially a stunningly beautiful film about a grunting, inexpressive gargoyle, as Turner describes himself on screen. He's played by longtime character actor Timothy Spall, who played the rattish Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies, and who's even more animalistic here — he even growls once or twice. A scowling lump of a man, Turner's already successful and well-established by the time the film starts, and it contrasts the increasingly eccentric, unpretty person he is with the acclaimed work he puts out.
Unlike Grace of Monaco, Mr. Turner has no interest in solving its subject, instead allowing him to be earthy but also mysterious — someone who tenderly courts a widow (Marion Bailey) he meets while traveling to the seaside town of Margate, but who reacts with impatient coldness to visits by the aggrieved mother of his two daughters; and someone who has a warm relationship with his father (Paul Jesson), but also callously uses the maid (Dorothy Atkinson) who's his other regular companion.
Mr. Turner, which will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics, skips all of the usual biopic arcs and beats, instead progressing through Turner's later years in episodic stints. It definitely drags at times, and Turner's emotional opacity can make him difficult to relate to outside of the occasional burst of emotion that gets past his stoic exterior. But he's meant to be prickly, and Spall does an amazing job in a rare leading turn that has him finding the humanity in a man who often seems more of a beast.
Not everyone looks like a movie star or a princess, but that doesn't mean they can't make great art, and Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope have done some of that in Mr. Turner, which contains some stunning scenes of the countryside and just as gorgeously composed ones in Turner's home. Like its subject, the film is not always easy to love, but it's worth the effort.