The UK DVD cover for Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco (2014) boasts a quotation from Marie Claire magazine calling the film “stylish and beautiful”. This might well have been the only positive review Grace of Monaco received. Most commentators appear to have been competing to see who could pour the greatest scorn on Dahan’s film, with Mark Kermode calling it “the benchmark by which badder-than-bad biopics will be judged in years to come.”
In general, popular movies aimed at female audiences are evaluated more harshly than those aimed at male audiences, and when royalty is thrown into the mix, the response tends to be particularly virulent: witness the critical contempt which greeted Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana (2013) and Madonna’s W.E. (2010).
Yet this contempt has little to do with strongly held republican values. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) was treated respectfully even by detractors, despite its being the most glibly reactionary entry in the recent royal cycle; the scene in which King George VI (Colin Firth) recalls how his nanny refused to feed him suggests that, seen from the ‘correct’ perspective, the working-class female employee is actually a powerful tyrant, the privileged male aristocrat really just another starving peasant.
The reason The King’s Speech was acclaimed and Grace of Monaco jeered surely has something to do with a lingering intellectual distrust of melodrama. Although a great deal of serious theoretical work has been devoted to this genre, the rhetorical gestures associated with it still tend to disturb middlebrow reviewers (as, indeed, they should), particularly when encountered in a context that is neither sealed in a historical vacuum (classical Hollywood is an object for study, and thus can no longer trouble us), nor heavily marked by signifiers of ironic distance (see, for example, Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven) motivated by a specious misreading of Sirkian irony, which is incorrectly seen as precluding emotional involvement.
The difference is, of course, a stylistic one, and if The King’s Speech bears the requisite hallmarks of restrained bourgeois good taste – which is to say that it has all the visual distinction of (and much the same ideological bent as) the Shopping Channel – Grace of Monaco luxuriates in stylistic excess, its extravagant mise en scène subserving an unironic commitment to its protagonist, Grace Kelly.
Needless to say, this lack of irony is Dahan’s main crime. Critics will put up with virtually anything, even the output of Lars von Trier, if there is evidence to suggest that they are in on some kind of joke, and that the director regards them as savvy enough to laugh with him. (It’s almost always a he.)
Since laughing with Dahan’s film is clearly not an option, all that remains, at least for those clued-in viewers who have have been informed that identification with fictional characters is a load of the old malarkey, is to laugh at it. The laughter which accompanied the Cannes screening was unambiguously derisive, but I suspect it was also defensive, a way for critics to distance themselves from an emotional experience they were too ‘cool’ or embarrassed to embrace.
For Grace of Monaco is nothing if not emotional. The screen is often flooded with primary colours, and while this never announces itself as an anti-realist effect, the lighting is carefully cued to fluctuations in Grace Kelly’s emotional state. Though there is an echo here of such noted melodramatists as Sirk and Minnelli, Dahan’s mise en scène more obviously evokes Max Ophuls in its expressive economy.
All the film’s motifs and concerns can be found in its exemplary opening shot, which seems to begin with the camera retreating down a road. This is soon revealed to be an image projected on a screen in a Hollywood studio where Grace Kelly is shooting High Society (1956). As actors and technicians applaud, Grace leaves the set, Dahan’s camera following her from behind. Only after she has entered her dressing room and positioned herself before a mirror do we finally catch a glimpse of Grace’s face, and we see it only via a reflection. Grace’s aristocratic power and control are emphasised by the way she hands some flowers she has been given to an assistant, then begins removing her coat, which is immediately grabbed by another assistant.
Yet the sheer length of the take (it runs a little over two minutes) suggests this power and control are illusory, hemmed in and defined not merely by the camera itself, but by those marks of artifice which bracket the shot, and determine Grace’s every move. The roads along which she will drive in Monaco look no more ‘realistic’ than the back-projected one seen here, and the mirror shot is just the first in a series portraying her as an entrapped object for the look, repeatedly framed in doorways and windows. The camera intimately explores Grace’s face during theoretically private moments, and slowly tracks in as she talks to her mother on the telephone, gradually transforming a long shot into an extreme close up; Grace is left with nowhere to hide, no place in which she can escape scrutiny.
Yet Dahan reminds us that his Philadelphian heroine recreated herself as ‘Grace Kelly’, meticulously perfecting, to use the words of her confidant Father Tucker (Frank Langella), “a certain kind of accent” (the casting of Nicole Kidman, an Australian actress ‘doing’ an American accent, is extremely apt), and once she begins bringing performative skills learned in Hollywood to bear on her ‘role’ as Princess of Monaco, the invasive camera can be enlisted as an ally, allowing the film to end with her looking directly into the lens.
Monaco is depicted as a ‘feminised’ country, ostensibly governed by a weak male, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), an insecure performer constantly retreating into either darkness or the rear of the frame. One key scene begins with Grace, dressed in regal splendour, standing motionless at the top of a staircase, then shows her descending to meet Rainier, whom she visually dominates. Grace is both the real ruler of this nation and the embodiment of its spirit (the colour of her clothing often matches that of the decor), and once she has learned to shape her public image (via a series of what are essentially acting lessons), she can truthfully declare “I am Monaco”.
Dahan has an almost Capraesque optimism about identity: for him, performative gestures, despite being studied and rehearsed, not only unproblematically represent ‘genuine’ inner states, but also enable the female performer to impose her vision on a world ruled by masculine politicians. Grace’s climactic speech about love – totally lacking in irony – apparently attracted guffaws at Cannes, and its emphasis on how reality can be redefined and history reshaped by skilful feminine performance could hardly be less fashionable. But Grace of Monaco will surely reward multiple viewings and close analysis, and be remembered long after most of today’s ‘hip’ successes have been forgotten. Marie Claire’s reviewer was correct: this is a stylish and beautiful film.