Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: "Grace of Monaco"

Director: Olivier Dahan
Runtime: 103 minutes

Certain cinematic failures can inspire sympathy. There are those noble misfires, films with a few worthwhile aspect drowned in a sea of well-intentioned decisions that simply didn't pan out. And then, there are flat out disasters. After the first five minutes of Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco, you'll realize that you're about to sit through a film that belongs in the latter category. Not content to simply be an uneven bio-drama, this behind-the-scenes look at actress Grace Kelly's life in Monaco lacks even a single convincing moment. Mr. Dahan, who directed Marion Cotillard to an Oscar in La Vie En Rose, seems to have already peaked. Sadly, the high point of his career seems to be nowhere as extreme as the lows in which Grace of Monaco finds him. 

Even in bad films of the train wreck variety there can be small pieces worth salvaging (a strong scene, a good performance, a stirring scores). Sadly, that's not the case here. When the film opened the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, it was widely considered one of the worst Opening Night selections in the festival's history. Assuming the Weinstein Company decides to still give the film a mercifully small US release, it will soon also go down as one of the year's worst films as well (and remain a frontrunner for the same honor for the whole decade). 

But, oh, where to begin? In a film like Grace of Monaco, it's often hard to find an entry point into what went wrong, or where the blame should lie, because every piece of the puzzle is a catastrophic failure (if there has to be a saving grace - ha - it's some of the costumes). 

Perhaps it's best to start at the top of the food chain. Dahan's directing style has never been the most elegant, but here he seems to be playing with any number of aesthetics and emotional tones all at once. The handful of editing styles used throughout the film only make this tonal issue more glaring. The earliest "drama" that occurs is that, GASP, someone in the palace of Monaco has told the press that Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) might return to Hollywood to star in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie. None of the actors ever seem able to ground themselves in the material, with Dahan's direction resulting in a bunch of weightless, shrill performances that waste a talented ensemble. Most laughable are the extreme close-ups he uses during "important" one-on-one convos between Grace and her mentor Father Tuck (Frank Langella, hopefully being paid decently for his time). 

Visually, Dahan and his team can't seem to accomplish anything either. In striving to make the film appear lush, Dahan and cinematographer Eric Gautier somehow wound up making the film look like a Lifetime movie. Interior scenes are blasted with soft light, and at times the amount of vaseline smeared on the lens borders on parody. Whatever faults Luca Guadagnino's I am Love had (there are many), it at least knew how to make this visual style look appropriately lush and opulent. 

The film fares no better when it comes to its story or its writing. Arash Amel's screenplay, which was somehow on the Blacklist a few years ago, is meant to focus on Kelly's identity crisis as a wife, mother, former actress, and head of state. But any dramatic tension is quickly sapped when it becomes clear where the story is headed. In the early 60s, Charles De Gaulle threatened to invade Monaco over issues involving tax loopholes that Monaco's Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth). As tensions between France and military-less Monaco mount, Kelly does her best to use her former movie star status to navigate the political minefield she has married into. 

Yet where the political intrigue fails is in the very history it seeks to depict. Monaco's tax loopholes, exploited by French businesses, were essentially a way for very rich people to prevent themselves from becoming slightly less rich. With this in mind, it would have been more satisfying for Amel to go the Inglourious Basterds route, and rewrite history to include French forces storming the palace where many so many of the characters run around in a huff over nothing. Instead, we get a laughable conclusion in the form of Kelly's speech at the Red Cross Gala. Meant to be the big dramatic moment that turns the tide in Monaco's favor, the scene suffers from all of the inanity that precedes it. Individual lines in the film ("Oh, but isn't colonialism SO last century?") elicit unintentional laughter, but the final speech practically dares you not to fall out of your seat in a fit of hysterical disbelief.

More sobering is how bad each and every performance is. The extreme close-ups may emphasize how much Kidman doesn't really look like Grace Kelly, but that would be forgivable if she had found a single convincing moment. Some of it may come down to being miscast, but some of the actress' choices here are just embarrassing. If this was the first performance of hers you had ever seen, you'd wonder how she had ever landed any major roles before, let alone won an Oscar. 

Then there's Tim Roth as Kelly's domineering husband, sniveling through each scene without an ounce of actual humanity behind his stern demeanor. Langella, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his elderly mentor role, and Derek Jacobi turns in a laughably prissy performance as an etiquette coach (he literally holds up emotion cards for Grace, and then judges her ability to convey said emotions). Jacobi's pet parrot, who appears only briefly, deserves special mention for never going over-the-top, despite the work of his cast mates. The actor playing Alfred Hitchcock gets stuck with the worst cliches screenwriters come up with whenever he's used as a character. Every line he has either works in a reference to filmmaking or references one of the famed director's own movies. Lastly, poor Parker Posey is stuck in a Mrs. Danvers-type role so cartoonish that everyone else almost seems convincing for a moment. 

Though Hollywood's obsession with biographical dramas about its own members is tiresome, rarely has the genre sunk so low. It lacks a single moment where it is convincing or compelling as a behind-the-scenes story, as a character study, or as a politically-tinged drama. The dreadful filmmaking is so completely off-base from the start that it almost demands to be seen (almost). Grace Kelly's legacy deserves to shine on forever. Grace of Monaco, however, deserves to be forgotten in a matter of weeks after its release, which is about how long it should take for the DVD to wind up in the bargain bin at Walmart. 

Grade: D-/F

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