Cannes 2014: The Princess Grace biopic is melodramatic and silly, but “Timbuktu” starts the competition off right
The Nicole Kidman movie “Grace of Monaco” was greeted with a single, resounding “bravo!” as soon as its second Cannes Film Festival press screening ended on Wednesday — but it was hard to tell if the response was genuine or mocking, particularly since it was followed not by applause but by laughter from the crowd at the Salle Debussy.
French director Olivier Dahan's film starring Kidman as actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly was Cannes’ opening night selection this year, probably because it's got the requisite star power and it takes place just up the coast from Cannes on the Cote d'Azur.
But the film had already stirred up controversy even before its screening, as Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) and the Weinstein Co. had reportedly sparred over whose cut was going to be released. And no sooner had its first screening concluded on Wednesday morning than a number of critics lit into the film with a vengeance.
The film deals with (and, Dahan admits, fictionalizes) a short period in Princess Grace's life in which she was trying to decide whether to return to acting with a role in Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie,” and her husband Prince Rainier in a tense standoff with France over taxes. One scene in which she tells him they can leave it all behind and buy a farm drew derisive laughter throughout the theater.
In fact, the nicest thing you could find about the movie afterwards might have been Eric Kohn's tweet saying the film was “not an atrocity.”
From this vantage point, he's right: It's not atrocious, and it's occasionally even entertaining. Kidman gives a speech late in the film in which she does a pretty good job of channeling Grace Kelly, and an understated Tim Roth as Rainier manages to survive the film without too much damage.
But it's also pretty laughable, an overinflated bit of foolishness that borrows from both Puccini and old Hollywood melodramas and never misses a chance to be melodramatic and silly.
Would a lighter approach, which is reportedly what Weinstein was pushing for, have helped? Let's just say it wouldn't have hurt — although Dahan insisted at a press conference that Weinstein will release the director's version of the film, so even those who might be inclined to compare and contrast may not have the opportunity to do so.
Mercifully, that's now out of the way so that Cannes can get to the job of showcasing serious arthouse cinema. They did just that on Wednesday night, when the first press screening of an official competition film took place at the same time as the opening-night ceremony and “Grace” premiere.
And the film that kicks off the competition, Abderrahmane Sissako's “Timbuktu,” is world's away from Dahan's and Kidman's bauble. The director, who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, is the only African in the competition, and his film is as timely and as disturbing as the headlines about kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
“Timbuktu” is a case study of a small African village that suddenly finds itself run by Islamic militants bent on enforcing Sharia law (even if they privately talk soccer, smoke western cigarettes and even do something suspiciously close to dancing).
The casual, dehumanizing brutality adds up and impacts everyone, and Sissako has a knack for composing images as striking as they are deeply unsettling. Two in particular stand out: a lengthy, unmoving wide shot in which a man staggers across a shallow river after inadvertently shooting a man who'd killed one of his cows; and a scene in which a young woman who is sentenced to 80 lashes for singing somehow uses the strikes of the whip as rhythm for a song she chokes out between blows.
Overall, the film is quiet and restrained, but it inexorably adds up to a devastating indictment of religion run amuck — with, strangely enough, moments of true humor. “Timbuktu” drags at times and gets a little lost at others, but it is a satisfying way to start the real Cannes after the silly hors d'oeuvre that is “Grace of Monaco.”