Grace of Monaco
There was no shortage of glamour and star power on the Cannes 2014 opening red carpet. Tim Roth and Nicole Kidman, the stars of long-awaited Grace of Monaco, are indeed true professionals. Their perfectly fitted tuxes, blingy gowns and stellar smiles were carrying a grim secret: Oliver Dahan’s film is a spectacular disappointment to all who hoped for the La Vie en Rose director’s next big thing. Critics were merciless while slashing the Grace Kelly biopic with all sorts of verbal weapons, pouring buckets of cynical venom and making ironic puns, or, because why not, openly trashing this disaster of a movie. Dahan and his scriptwriter (also serving as a debuting producer) Arash Amel went completely off the rails.
Historically they remain close to the truth, but their vision of Kelly and Rainier’s relationship is reminiscent of a soap opera with an astronomical budget and tasteful costume designer. They basically bathe in all sorts of disarmingly bombastic terms like love, faith, hope or family, shoving them into the characters’ mouths whenever possible. Actors simply blurt out pompous declarations instead of actually talking. Kelly just rumbles – and sighs – while Rainier remains silent, like a “typical man” who “doesn’t understand feelings”. Luckily, when in the end she proves him wrong by organizing a huge Red Cross ball in the midst of swelling military conflict and wisely using fashion as a political statement, he sees in her an interior equally beautiful as the exterior. At least for a while.
Speaking of surfaces: Why would anyone cast Kidman in this role except for profit? Fourteen years Kelly’s (at that time) senior, Kidman simply doesn’t come across as believable as the then 32-year-old starlet. In a perverse way, this disconnection also exposes the actress’s own sad and unnecessary struggle to obey Hollywood code of wrinklelessness and remain forever young. Eric Gautier’s intrusive camerawork, so fond of boring and merit less macro closeups, exposes traces of some old nerve paralyzer in Kidman’s upper lip. But maybe it’s for the best. If she could move it properly, she’d never declamate those wooden lines believably, she’d flinch. Grace of Monaco is like one of those pretty but vapid girls you’d rather only look at in the hope that she never opens her mouth again.
Mike Leigh is a true Cannes veteran, having been a part of the main competition five times already, and winning twice (the Best Director Award in 1993 for Naked, and the Palme d’Or in 1996 for Secrets & Lies). This year’s Mr. Turner tells the story of J.M.W. Turner, a legendary British painter and a true visionary, whose unique interpretations of natural forces have been firmly imprinted into the world’s heritage. Despite his artistic achievements, Turner was a rather ordinary bore, whose own biographer A.J. Finberg admitted privately to having problem finding traces of his magic in the real person. Who else could’ve made an interesting film about an uninteresting man if not Leigh, the expert of finding gloriousness in moments of ordinary being?
Mr. Turner is told chronologically, following the last few decades of the painter’s life, peeking into Turner’s innovative work techniques,and his quarrels with fellow members of Royal Academy of Arts. Turner, brilliantly played by Leigh’s longtime collaborator Timothy Spall, is being defined throughout the film as much by his words and actions as his behavior. Spall creates a whole lexicon of murmurs, wheezes and snorts. Mr. Turner is not a man of words, but his inarticulate communication might even be richer than his arsenal of painting, tools and ideas. Leigh has written a witty, well-crafted script that despite not having too much content, is satisfying and engaging, ironic and funny. Leigh’s long-time cinematographer Dick Pope infuses the film with a recognizably Turneresque feel. Not exactly an imitation, but a truly independent, unique piece of art itself.
In light of the recent sharia-law reintroduction in Saudi Arabia that shook Los Angeles’s wealthy socialites, who enjoyed the Saudi-owned Hotel Beverly Hills’s legendary matinees, the subject of religious repercussions is – in a pretty shameful manner – in the media spotlight yet again. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, another main competition contender, is set in a completely unglamorous environment, a remote village in Mali, but touches upon the very same subject. Here, however, it’s not just the theory but flesh – and blood.
Inspired by a 2012 conflict, the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country bringing numerous bans, lashings and even executions, Timbuktu focuses on the patterns of everyday life as they’re being drastically influenced by an abstract concept of what is right and what isn’t. But despite choosing plotlines that are heart wrenching, sometimes brutal and dramatic, Sissako never succumbs to pathos and retains a humanist approach that welcomes distance and rays of humor into this grim universe. The perpetrators are not morally one dimensional, discussing french football and enjoying an occasional smoke. Young boys drafted to an Islamic Police force unit follow a set of rules which incoherence they don’t understand, but are led to think it embodies faithful ideals. Those who hold the power execute and those who don’t conform can only suffer.
The beauty of Mali customs, culture, and rhythm of its heartbeat is obviously dear to the Mauritanian director and his tangible fondness fills every frame. On this fertile emotional ground, the perpetrators’ unreflective brutality demasks its irrationality even more strikingly. One of the leads, first time actor & musician Ibrahim Ahmed, is incredibly captivating as a tender father, whose slow-paced life as a cattle herder is brutally torn apart when he accidentally kills a man. Timbuktu in an uneven film, the second part being slightly less engaging in terms of pace and plot tightness. It delivers scenes that the viewers will not easily wipe out of their imagination, but also brings those to cherish and caress, including one of the most mesmerizing scenes I’ve ever seen: of boys, who were forbidden to play football, performing a game in their own imagination, like mimes carried by the climatic music.