Prior to 2001 the opening-night film of the Cannes film festival wasn’t such a big deal, more of an aperitif – a dry one, made with cinematic creosote – before the dazzling main course of the first weekend. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, however, changed all that, bringing fun, glamour, Hollywood stars and lots of colour to the Croisette in a way that 1999’s dour opener The Barber Of Siberia couldn’t hope to. This year’s curtain-raiser shares quite a few things in common with Moulin Rouge!. It’s an easy watch, lush, stylish, stars Nicole Kidman and is often side-splittingly funny. The trouble is, it’s not actually meant to be a comedy.
Directed by Olivier Dahan, Grace Of Monaco may be the first true, timeless camp classic ever to open this festival, an event not altogether known for its playfulness despite the media accent on champagne and yacht-based frolics. It’s like seeing Mommie Dearest for the first time, but instead of being mortified for its leading lady, one gets the fuzzy, warm feeling that this will inspire a whole new generation of drag queens.
There will be Grace Of Monaco parties, Prince Charles Cinema quote-alongs and so many drinking games. Down a shot every time a piece of dialogue sounds like Wikipedia! Have another if someone drives really quickly round a hairpin bend (two if it’s Grace)! Have a triple when Parker Posey pulls a snooty face! Drink the whole bottle when Derek Jacobi pops in to give Grace etiquette lessons! No player will ever survive to see the end of it.
As critic Susan Sontag once noted, the essential element of camp is seriousness, and it is this astonishing lack of self-awareness that makes Dahan’s film so much fun. Not that Grace Of Monaco is po-faced – far from it. But the howler of a script by Arash Amel makes such a bizarre and grandiose case for Grace Kelly’s post-movie life that it’s almost impossible to keep a straight face.
It begins in 1961, with Alfred Hitchcock arriving in Monaco to persuade the former actress, now Princess Grace of Monaco (she has quite a few titles; you’ll get to hear most of them), to appear in his new film Marnie. The actor playing Hitch is by far the worst in a long, long line, but thankfully the Master is soon dispensed with. While Grace toys with the idea of making one more movie, disaster strikes: French president Charles de Gaulle, fed up with Monaco’s Prince Rainier (Tim Roth) welcoming France’s runaway millionaires to his country’s tax-free bosom, decides to play hardball. Monaco must tax its citizens, relinquish its sovereignty and become part of France, or there will be hell to pay.
This national catastrophe happens just as Princess Grace is beginning to suffer something of a midlife crisis, so she steps up to the plate to lead the fightback – at which point the film starts to resemble a kind of Batman Begins for gay men (there’s even an Alfred figure), with a dash of Mission: Impossible for 13 year-old girls thrown in. Grace, aided by avuncular priest Tucker (Frank Langella), realises that she must channel her inner queen in order to save all 0.78 square miles of her kingdom.
The result, although an odd choice for starters, at least sets a light tone for the Festival, which promises to be less bleak and austere than usual in its official line-up. And as we know from previous years, critical and public consensus don’t always collide. Might Grace Of Monaco be the surprise hit of 2014? As the film shows, stranger things have happened.