Greetings from Cannes! It's an unwritten rule — maybe it should even be a written one — that no one who is lucky enough to come to Cannes for the film festival, now in its 67th year, should, in any way, shape, or form, complain about being here. But may I beg your indulgence and complain just a little about last year? When it was pouring rain and shivery-cold three-quarters of the time, the opening competition film (Amat Escalante's Mexican-drug-war drama Heli) featured a simulated but nonetheless disturbing puppy murder, and my laptop died halfway through the festival? Some very nice gentlemen at the little Apple store here got it running in a matter of hours, but its near-death experience nearly did me in.
This year is so much better! The sun is shining, the unreliable laptop has been replaced, and in the one movie I've seen so far, not a single puppy was killed. Life is good! Though I can't say quite the same about the festival opener, being shown out of competition, Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco — this morning's screening seemed to disappoint many critics, who filed out grumbling and muttering and shaking their heads. Peter Bradshaw, in the Guardian, called it "so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk."
Actually, Grace of Monaco's not quite as terrible as all that: In this admittedly fictionalized version of the not-quite-fairy-tale life of Princess Grace of Monaco, otherwise known as Grace Kelly, Nicole Kidman doesn't have to strain to look regal. She's already got the princess-y carriage down, but good, and her porcelain-cup fragility makes her touching —you don't want to see anyone, particularly farty old Prince Rainier (played by a perpetually frowning Tim Roth) to break her.
The tragedy of Grace of Monaco lies purely in Dahan's direction: He just doesn't know what to do with actors. That was also true of his 2007 Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose; Marion Cotillard won her Oscar in spite of Dahan's direction, not because of it. In that movie's most deeply emotional moments, his camera never failed to zoom right in, magnifying her studied tics and mannerisms in a way that, through no fault of Cotillard's, made them seem false. He does something similar to Kidman here: His camera flutters around her like an anxious footman, so eager to serve her that he practically stomps all over her. In a crucial scene, his lens moves in close, fixating on her eyes and the faint tears that cloud them. It's as if he's trying to recite poetry with the camera instead of merely capturing it. Kidman can't survive that — no actress could.
Still, a few performers emerge unscathed: Parker Posey, as a duplicitous servant, might be channeling Gale Sondergaard in The Letter — she's regal in her deviousness. And there is one area in which Grace of Monaco does not disappoint: The clothes, oh! The clothes. Strangely, even though we're living in an era in which more people seem more fixated than ever on luxury goods, beautiful, elegant clothes are so scarce in today's movies. It's as if our reliance on brand names as emblems of quality and good judgment has destroyed not just our taste buds but our imagination.
Is it shallow to want to see gorgeous clothes in the movies? I don't think so, unless we've somehow brainwashed ourselves out of responding to beauty in the movies altogether. With Grace of Monaco, costume designer Gigi Lepage has done everything right, dressing Kidman in an assortment of buttery tweed suits, broad-brimmed straw hats that hit the sweet spot between being tasteful and playful, and trousers that look to be made of whispery wool. (It doesn't hurt that Grace of Monaco has been beautifully shot, in posh, creamy tones, by Eric Gaultier, who often works with Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin.)
Granted, you'd have to be completely inept to make a movie about Grace Kelly with ugly clothes, but Lepage goes even beyond the call of duty. Her costumes don't just look nice; they move the way movie clothes need to move, following the posture and even the mood of the wearer, fluttering in a slight breeze or conveying still-life sophistication as needed. They're allies in everything Kidman is trying to do, providing supple armor for every moment of stern determination or full-on bummed-out-princess despair. Cannes 2014 could have opened with a much better, more intelligently made movie, but at least Grace of Monaco doesn't falter in the glamor department. And every human being who loves movies deserves a little glamor now and then.