With apologies to Three Six Mafia, it's hard out here for a princess. In the past year, first-world problem films – the plush brand of non-issue cinema exemplified by last year's Cannes entry “A Castle in Italy,” in which linen-clad lunchers fretted prettily about what to do with their priceless original Brueghels – have been threatened by the Princess Problem Picture, a currently thriving subgenre that sets out to measure the true weight of a tiara. Whether the wearer is a closeted Scandi ice maiden who just wants, Garbo-style, to be left alone (“Frozen”) or a hounded British divorcee who just wants, Lauper-style, to have fun (“Diana”), female royalty hasn't seemed such a drag since the age of Henry VIII.
Enter Olivier Dahan's “Grace of Monaco,” a biopic that announces its intention to further remove the scales from our eyes with an opening quote from its subject: “The idea of my life as a fairytale,” said Grace Kelly, “is itself a fairytale.” Kelly knew more than most about constructed or projected lives, having acceded to royalty directly from the zenith of Hollywood stardom; her life may not have been a fairytale, but it dabbled extensively in fantasy.
Dahan, who made his name with the similarly but more compellingly scattered star biopic “La Vie en Rose,” begins his film at the bridging point between Kelly's two elevated planes of existence, on the last day of her final film shoot (the aptly named “High Society”) in 1956. The actress is bathed in applause as we follow her, in creamy slow motion, from the set to her dressing room, while a handily placed radio informs us of her impending nuptials to Rainer III, Prince of Monaco. The first time we see her face, it is in the mirror as she stares beatifically into her gilded future – Princess Grace is quite literally introduced to us as a reflection, an image beamed to millions, a first face once removed.
That's about as subtle as the storytelling gets in “Grace of Monaco,” a hilariously ham-handed attempt to dig beneath the Kelly mystique, only to find further foil-wrapped layers of mystique beneath. Well, maybe not mystique so much as a perfumed blankness. The real Grace, posits Arash Amel's inadvertently unflattering screenplay, was sent into such a tailspin by the strenuous demands of Monte Carlo palace life that she required ornate flashcards (let's call them Grace notes) to help her distinguish between such tricky emotions as “anger” and “trust.”
Perhaps they're also there for the benefit of Nicole Kidman, whose brittle, committed performance frequently seems an afterthought amid her director's whirring assemblage of arbitrary cuts, close-ups and a crazed score that treats every scene as a climax; if he instructed her at all, it was with sporadic, barking interjections from the spoken-word breakdown of “Vogue.” Porcelain goddess credentials aside, Kidman's not an especially logical choice to play Grace Kelly – she's a nervily intuitive performer where Kelly was a malleably obliging one, a contrast never more obvious than in one contrived scene that sees her privately rehearsing scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie” in a shrill register that resembles neither star's customary style.
A smart film would make a virtue of this apparent miscasting, using Kidman's hard intensity to delineate the non-fairytale Grace to which onlookers have never been privy. “Grace of Monaco” is not, to put it gently, a smart film. It is one where lines like “You've been the principality priest for a long time” fill in for characterization. It is one where Kelly's 1982 death is tastefully foreshadowed with a smash cut to her driving like a demon down a serpentine road. And it is one that refers repeatedly to princessdom as “a role to play,” without going so far as to write any such role: Kidman-as-Kelly vacillates between exposition and expression, while Eric Gautier's camera peers pryingly into her face, juddering hazily from eyes to mouth and back again. At one point blatantly lifting Jonathan Glazer's iconic “Birth” close-up (and at an opera recital, to boot), Dahan is as fascinated by Kidman's visage as Hitchcock was by Kelly's. The difference is that he has far less sense of how it actually works.
Hitch is both a direct and indirect presence here. Played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths as a braying harbinger of doom, he shuffles in and out of the narrative to tempt Kelly back to Hollywood five years into her reign, at a point when tetchy palace politics are making her feel particularly unwelcome: “Don't stand too close to the edge of the frame, Gracie,” he intones helpfully over the phone, as if from the beyond.
Dahan, who knows not the meaning of “too close” nor “edge of the frame,” is briefly taken with the notion that Kelly was living a Hitchcock noir, effectively casting the insecure ingenue in a more aristocratic updo of “Rebecca.” A scowling, purse-lipped Parker Posey plays the sinister housekeeper whose name may as well be Mrs. Danvers, manifesting unannounced in private rooms and tricking our poor princess into picking funeral lilies for a Sunday brunch. She also may or may not be passing on palace secrets to the French authorities, as the film temporarily tries on the trenchcoat of a Hitchcock espionage thriller before tiring of the pastiche entirely.
This throwaway Hitchcock conceit is but one of many ways in which “Grace of Monaco” fails to recognize even its own tacky possibilities. Harvey Weinstein's alleged reservations about Dahan's cut of the film are that it focuses too little on the tension between the star's first and second careers, between European royalty and Hollywood's brasher approximation of the same.
On this occasion, the studio honcho may be right: brushing Grace's interior life to one side, Dahan devotes dull acres of screen time to the minor international crisis that ensued when Charles de Gaulle blockaded the Principality of Monaco in an attempt to force the state to relinquish its independence. Cue any number of turgid, dimly lit scenes in which Rainier (Tim Roth, emoting little but expelling copious cigarette smoke from his nostrils) and his cronies hash out the situation in their best “'Allo 'Allo” accents. History buffs will doubtless feast on the inaccuracies; the rest will merely question all this fuss over what is, with due respect to the good people of Monaco, a glorified casino.
Back at the ranch, Grace is having marginally more fun at Sir Derek Jacobi's Princess Academy: determined to be more involved in court operations, the princess is escorted by her priest and confidante Father Francis (a dolorous Frank Langella, one eye on the nearest exit) to the hillside abode of Count Fernando D'Aillieres, a flouncy palace etiquette expert with a parrot on his shoulder, a myriad moues in his repertoire and the aforementioned pack of touchy-feely flashcards.
Jacobi plays him with the countenance and probable fragrance of a ripe summer apricot; the character appears to have been added late in the scripting process, either to plump up the princess's arc a bit or because the powers that be decided this frippery could only be salvaged with a literal and figurative aide-de-camp. These patently ludicrous sequences tease the daffy “Princess Diaries” bauble that “Grace of Monaco” could and should have been, even if not to discernibly more artful effect. Too earnest for its terminal chintziness, this Princess Problem Picture establishes that Grace Kelly's real life was no fairytale, but has little idea of what it was instead. “Regret” is the last flashcard held up by Jacobi, with quivering solemnity, in the final scene; in a film so short on its own grace notes, it's a mighty cruel punchline.