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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

entry arrow5:20 PM | Gracefully, Melodramatically

Now that I have seen Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco (2014), I find most curious the superstorm of criticism that greeted its opening in various cities in Europe after it made its debut at Cannes. (It never did open in the U.S., consigned to television fare by a distributor seeking retribution against the director.) Turgid, flat, vapid, and excruciating are some of the "nicer" epithets hurled against this heavily fictionalised biography of Grace Kelly, the supreme ice queen of classic Hollywood cinema turned real-life princess. Because, as played by Nicole Kidman, the royal portrayal is a performance that is very much a sleight-of-hand: we know that it cannot be a spot-on take -- how do you that, when Grace Kelly's very image is burned so hard on our collective pop consciousness? -- but Ms. Kidman does an impersonation that is more than fitting for the requirements of the material: beautiful princess finds herself in the maelstrom of a pseudo-thriller filled with political machinations, all touched by the elusive glamour of cinema and royalty. I liked the film. I did not love it, but it is far from the disgrace critics make it out to be. Truth to tell, Grace of Monaco is actually a better film than La Vie en Rose, Dahan's previous effort at exploring the exquisite travails of a female icon, in that case the trouble-addled life of French singer Edith Piaf. That other film, while strongly anchored by the sheer brilliance of Marion Cotillard, floundered around looking for a structure. Grace of Monaco, on the other hand, is all structure, and replete with performances that don't register false notes, contrary to what the critics say. It's only problem perhaps is in trying to drum up dressed up drama and shimmering intrigue over the humdrum, something perfectly encapsulated by the whole sequence of Princess Grace arriving at Monte Carlo for the Red Cross Ball, using star power to counter international political shenanigans.

In an essay for the British Film Institute website, Brad Stevens said as much:

In general, popular movies aimed at female audiences are evaluated more harshly than those aimed at male audiences, and when royalty is thrown into the mix, the response tends to be particularly virulent: witness the critical contempt which greeted Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana (2013) and Madonna’s W.E. (2010).

Yet this contempt has little to do with strongly held republican values. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) was treated respectfully even by detractors, despite its being the most glibly reactionary entry in the recent royal cycle; the scene in which King George VI (Colin Firth) recalls how his nanny refused to feed him suggests that, seen from the ‘correct’ perspective, the working-class female employee is actually a powerful tyrant, the privileged male aristocrat really just another starving peasant.

The reason The King’s Speech was acclaimed and Grace of Monaco jeered surely has something to do with a lingering intellectual distrust of melodrama. Although a great deal of serious theoretical work has been devoted to this genre, the rhetorical gestures associated with it still tend to disturb middlebrow reviewers (as, indeed, they should), particularly when encountered in a context that is neither sealed in a historical vacuum (classical Hollywood is an object for study, and thus can no longer trouble us), nor heavily marked by signifiers of ironic distance (see, for example, Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven) motivated by a specious misreading of Sirkian irony, which is incorrectly seen as precluding emotional involvement.

An elegant use of sincerity and the kowtowing to melodrama, Stevens contends, constitute the very crime committed by Dahan's film. I find that critical absolute repugnant. Who mandated the privilege enjoyed by irony and restraint? (Uhm, male critics, for the most part.) These two stylistic uses contribute to an effect critics usually call "muscular storytelling" -- indicating a bias towards manlier stories, relegating to the wayside feminine concerns and feminine expression.

This is why directors like Nora Ephron or Susan Seidelman or Jane Campion often struggle with critical acceptance for their starkly female projects, garnering praise for singular works (Sleepless in Seattle, Desperately Seeking Susan, and The Piano) during rare years when the critical consensus feels the necessity to do token appreciation for female work. (They don't get the same critical love afterwards, their efforts chided away for being too difficult, or too unimportant.) The only unmitigated success by a female filmmaker is one demonstrated by Kathryn Bigelow, who barrelled to Oscar recognition for a work that is undeniably masculine in The Hurt Locker.

The sad truth is, we never really give much space or respect to what female artists have to say. They are always boxed in. Meghan Murphy in Women and Girls Don’t Need to Be Told to Be Nicer sums up this problem this way: “The trouble is that, for women, being 'nice' often translates into putting up with things we should never put up with... We smile when we’re harassed on the street or hit on by jerks. We laugh at sexist jokes. We learn that when we have strong opinions, we’ll be called bitches and that if we get angry, we’ll be called hysterical. When we say what we want, we’re called pushy or aggressive. Part of learning 'ladylike' behavior is about learning to smile politely when someone is being crude. Femininity has long been attached to passivity and to being docile. Men fight, women giggle and fume silently.”

Princess Grace fights in Dahan's film, and speaks out wilfully, gracefully. The critical consensus has shut her up by declaring the dramatisation of that as "vapid."

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