She’s been gone since 1982, when an apparent stroke led to her fatal car accident on the winding hills above the Mediterranean. But Grace Kelly had, and has, a way of lingering in the memory.
Here, today, she is everywhere. The other night in the Hotel Normandy, a small seaside establishment in Cap d’Ail just east of the wee tax-avoidant principality of Monaco, I slept down the hall from a huge painting of Kelly dominating a courtyard wall.
She remains the paradoxically American emblem of the French Riviera. And not even a lousy biopic, “Grace of Monaco,” which opened the 67th Cannes Film Festival Wednesday, can diminish the glamorous memory of this particular movie star.
We’ll get to that new film starring Nicole Kidman in a minute. First let’s review what brought Kelly to the Riviera in the first place, and how the world’s most influential film festival played a key supporting role in her royal destiny.
Sixty years ago this month, in Cannes, in Nice, in the hills above Monaco and Eze, Kelly began shooting her third feature for Alfred Hitchcock. “To Catch a Thief” paired Kelly, in the role of a thrill-seeking American visiting the Riviera, opposite Cary Grant as a cat burglar who may or may not be declawed.
In the film’s best scene, Kelly, a discreetly bubbling cauldron of desire, parks her roadster, stretches her arms to the sun and offers Grant some cold chicken, a cold beer and some warm entendres on a roadside picnic above the Cote d’Azur. “Leg or a breast?” Kelly says, with a straight, proper face. The line was pretty daring for a mid-century popcorn picture. Almost imperceptibly the actress lets her voice do the eyebrow-wagging on that one. The views in that scene were splendid. They still are, even with all the new construction in Monaco erasing a few more slivers of blue sky every year.
“To Catch a Thief” opens with a shot of a travel agency window, touting the allure of the Cote d’Azur. Between the Riviera, Grant and Kelly, the scenery was almost too much for one picture. At one point Grant, not quite sure of the Kelly character’s intentions, acknowledges what he’s up against, saying: “You’re a jackpot of admirable character traits.” Kelly had more to do as an actress in her previous Hitchcock collaboration, the brilliant “Rear Window,” but if you look up the word “blithe” somewhere, you’ll find a photograph of Kelly and Grant and the Riviera, relaxed and sunny, the embodiment of blithe spirits.
Kelly returned to the region a year later in 1955, this time for the Cannes Film Festival. “The Country Girl” was in the festival line-up that year; Kelly, in an unglamorous, challengingly bitter role she fought to land, already had won an Oscar for it stateside.
One photo op, set up by the magazine Paris Match, arranged to have America’s classiest movie star meet Prince Rainier III of Monaco. He was single-ish; she was too. After the highly public and photogenic meeting they corresponded for a few months. Then he proposed, and she accepted. And she never made a full-length feature again, a fact “Grace of Monaco” flashes on the screen in its final seconds.
On the 2014 film festival’s opening day a taxi strike stranded a few hundred of us for several hours at the Nice airport, long enough to miss the first press screening of the Cannes festival’s out-of-competition opening selection.
At the evening gala screening, following the introduction of this year’s festival jury chaired by director Jane Campion, response was polite. Usually the dress-up gala screening audiences aren’t polite; they’re in the bag, and cheering, and clapping for minutes. For “Grace of Monaco” the relatively brief duration of applause spoke volumes.
Earlier Wednesday, after much negotiation and wrangling over the final cut, the Weinstein Company agreed to a U.S. distribution deal for “Grace of Monaco,” due in theaters in a few months. The film’s director is Olivier Dahan, whose Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose,” found a considerable international audience and secured Marion Cotillard an Academy Award.
Does “Grace of Monaco” have any of that film’s appeal and prospects? In a word: nope. I don’t really care about how much truth and how many fictions Dahan’s film is telling. On its own fictionalized turf it can’t get anything going. The script by Arash Amel focuses on Princess Grace’s turbulent first few years in the gilded cage of Monaco, that “sunny place for shady people,” as W. Somerset Maugham called it. According to the film, the former Grace Kelly single-handedly saved Monaco from begin invaded by France and that grumpy Charles de Gaulle.
The political struggles between France and Monaco, matters of taxation and economic blockades — all true, or true enough. And yet so little of it is interesting as dramatized, lifelessly, here. The familial palace intrigue has an air of stilted fraudulence throughout “Grace of Monaco,” and every time Dahan cuts to a shifty-eyed reaction shot of Parker Posey as Grace’s undermining lady-in-waiting, it’s like a distress signal.
Tim Roth plays the prince, dutifully, as a louche weasel with a few accidental signs of humanity. Kidman, alas, who is a tad old to play Kelly in her early 30s, delivers a portrayal that’s no better than her material. Her breathy line readings suggest Marilyn Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” not Grace Kelly. Dahan’s close-ups require Kidman to scowl and glare little death-stares of “I’m the boss, pal!” over and over, until she becomes an uneasy mixture of Shakespeare’s Juliet and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. In its Bernard Herrmann-lite musical scoring, and a shaky embrace of melodrama, Dahan’s film appears to have been made in the spirit of Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” the project Kelly was offered and then turned down for reasons that remain the subject of biographical debate. According to “Grace of Monaco” she turned it down to save her family and Monaco itself from ruin.
Cannes has opened with some cheesy misfires before, and surely it will again. The day I arrived I drove around Monaco and Eze, and visited the hairpin curve that took Grace Kelly’s life. The night before at the Hotel Normandy I spoke with the proprietor, Michele Ringestad, who with her husband spends half the year in Norway, and the other half running their little art colony of a hotel in Cap d’Ail.
In the lobby Ringestad’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger and other symbols of desire and the desired hang everywhere. The Grace Kelly painting, in the courtyard, is the biggest of all.
“She’s a beautiful lady, yes?” she asked me. “She has been an icon, so many years. She has class. Grace. Femininity. Together with her husband, the prince, she made Monaco and this place, this part of the world, unforgettable.”
The Cannes Film Festival continues through May 24. Look for daily reports online at chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies.