In a conventional fairy tale in the vein of “happily ever after”, a damsel in distress should be saved by a heroic, fearless prince, who is able to act as the foil to her limitations. But, what happens when this hero figure is himself also cornered, and out of his depth to rise above his own predicament? Such is the dilemma that confronts Grace Kelly in Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco.
Styled in perhaps the most melodramatically rendered strokes since Todd Haynes’s larger than life Far from Heaven, Grace of Monaco presents a Grace Kelly who, plucked from another fairy tale, that of Hollywood success, marries Prince Rainier of Monaco, and struggles to adjust to her new identity. In the early sixties, years after marrying Prince Rainier and producing heirs to the throne of Monaco, she is visited by Alfred Hitchcock and handed an early draft of the script for his eventual Marnie, and she decides that this is her time to return to the calling of Hollywood. Prince Rainier is initially indifferent and expresses lukewarm support for this endeavour, but gives her the ultimatum that she must handle the publicity herself. Together with Universal Studios they agree to keep her attachment to the project quiet until it seems like an opportune time. Just as she intends to put this plan into action, Monaco’s peace is threatened when an angered Charles de Gaulle threatens to annex Monaco in retaliation to its wooing French businesses to take advantage of centralizing their businesses there to avoid having to pay taxes. If that were not enough, someone in the palace covertly mails Universal Studios a release statement that allows them to publicize her casting in Marnie, to the dismay of the people of Monaco, who see this as an act of frivolity in the midst of the jeopardy of their independence.
Grace of Monaco never tries to be the conventional biopic that the average moviegoer would have expected it to be. Instead, it takes these events, and mounts it in a way that is visually and aurally sumptuous, its musical score loudly booming, as it actively transcends realism. Stunning close-ups of a dolled up Grace Kelly are congruent with a young girl’s fantasies of what living as a princess must be like. Grace Kelly’s own experience, and even that of the people of Monaco, is so insular and detached from the rest of the world. It is, therefore, fitting that the film is structured in a way that it imagines events that aren’t entirely historically sound, opting for an execution of them that is dramatic and larger than life. Once the escalating political climate convinces Prince Rainier that her involvement in the film would be imprudent, a heated argument occurs between the two of them, in front of family and friends, and they are bitter and strident as they debate whether or not his request for her to publicly refuse the offer is reasonable. If this were a film that were aiming for realism, it would feel affected and phony, but it truly begins to develop the idea that Grace Kelly’s fairy tale life has begun to sour. Soon, her sister-in-law, truly a stand-in for the stock fairy tale “evil stepsister”, is discovered to be behind a scheme to work with de Gaulle to overthrow Rainier’s claim to the throne, so that her own son may become the new heir. At this point, Grace realizes that there is nothing her own prince can do to save her and their kingdom.
This is where the construction of her rote fairy tale narrative is dismantled, and then reconstructed: Grace understands that only she now has the power to reverse the peril that has befallen her own happiness, and the tranquility of her nation. And it is ultimately her charm and actorly charisma, once derided by her husband, that is able to turn the public back in her favour in a moving, heartfelt and open speech she gives to diplomats at a charity event for the Red Cross. It really is an unexpected, astoundingly feminist mandate that this damsel in distress is her own knight in shining armour.
Nicole Kidman’s characterization of Grace Kelly is not cut from the fabric of the typical Oscar-bound biopic that lives for its actor’s precision of their subject’s mimicry. While Kidman is styled to look like Grace Kelly, and apes her mannerisms and poise, she makes no attempt to replicate the Oscar-winning actress’s voice. But it is a bold choice, and proof that no other modern actress could have feasibly played Grace Kelly. One scene that completely encapsulates the symbiosis in the suturing of these two personas is when Kidman’s Grace reads from the screenplay of Marnie. While she may not be the princess to the throne of a small European sovereignty, Nicole Kidman is at a crossroads in her own career where she is not the box office draw that she may have been, and not even all of her forays into arthouse fare (Lee Daniels’s pulpy The Paperboy, or Park Chan-wook’s moody Stoker) have landed as successfully as the initial buzz regarding these projects may have promised. She’s at a stage in her career where she must shed her old identity and reinvent herself. The tone of the scene is playful, as Kidman’s Grace stares into the mirror reciting her lines, and one is left with the impression that this princess may have lost touch with the talent for acting that she once had. Both of these women are in a place where they are removed from the safety of their former comfort zone, and face a terrifying question of what the proper place for them may be. Even on the red carpet for the premiere of this film, Nicole Kidman stayed in character – the embodiment of a modern day Grace Kelly – graciously holding her head high with dignity and poise, surely cognisant of the smugly scathing critical consensus that has formed.
Grace of Monaco was the perfect film to open the Cannes Film Festival this year: it bears a striking parallel to the artifice that Cannes has become. Its chic parties and glamorous red carpets function as devices to dazzle the general movie-going public, and construct an air of mystique in the promotion of the films that the festival screens. It’s not far removed from Dahan’s own vision of the world in which Princess Grace lived. The cut that opened the festival appears to answer the question of why Olivier Dahan and Harvey Weinstein have infamously warred over what the final cut of this film should be. Under the vision of Harvey Scissorhands, Grace of Monaco probably would have been a more polished, easily digestible biopic that likely would have won Oscars in the 1990s or early 2000s. But Dahan’s vision for Grace of Monaco dares to attempt a stab at the genre that really has not been done before: one that blurs the lines of reality, and presents a whirlwind fantasy in its re-imagination of an icon that we thought we knew.