It started in April, 1955, in room 875 of the Carlton hotel, just down the street from the current Palais des festivals, when the Cannes jury held a private reception attended by Prince Rainier III of Monaco and a few visiting stars. The last to come into the room was 25-year-old Grace Kelly, in town to promote her film The Country Girl, and they were introduced. A year later they were married, in a wedding that incarnated the Hollywood-Riviera romance that this year's Cannes festival is all about.
On Wednesday afternoon, Nicole Kidman, director Olivier Dahan (La vie en rose) and the rest of the cast entered the Palais for the opening press conference of the 67th festival, for Grace of Monaco, a drama that has also been simmering off-screen for months. The royal family in nearby Monaco have dismissed the film as pure fiction and cancelled their usual visit to the festival. As well, there has been a public war of words between Dahan and Harvey Weinstein, whose company, Weinstein Co., has threatened not to release the film unless the director provided a new U.S. cut.
The good news was that a half-hour an after the morning press screening, the trade magazines announced a deal had been struck: Weinstein would release the film, essentially as it is, under different financial terms. Asked about the conflict, Dahan confirmed it was settled. The bad news? Well, the generally blistering reviews that flooded in through the day, but the cast and crew had not read them yet. Dahan assured the journalists there will not be, as was rumoured, a separate European and American edit of the film. "There is only one version," Dahan said. "Harvey [Weinstein] will use that version. If some changes have to be made, we will make them together. There is no longer any dispute."
As for the Monaco royal family's dismissal of the film as fiction, Kidman says she was "obviously very sad," adding that the film, "has no malice toward the family and particularly toward Grace and Rainier." She said, if the royal family does see it, "I hope they will recognize it was done with affection for their parents."
Kidman said the film is essentially a love story. Like Kelly, she says, she could easily see giving up acting for love and identified with the star, who died in a car crash at 52. "At a very earlier age she won an Academy Award and then said, 'I want marriage and a family,' and I think that's a very strong thrust for a lot of women, for a lot of people. As much as you say I can walk away from all of this, the reality of walking away from it is very, very different." She was impressed by Kelly's "enormous dignity, which is really hard to [show] when you're going through transitions in public life."
Speaking of her identification with the character, Kidman added: "For me the greatest highs and the great lows come together, the professional highs and my personal lows have often collided. I hope some day I can have a personal high and a professional high. I also think that once you have children, you have the emotion of being able to die for somebody and when you have that selflessness, your whole life changes and everything comes from that perspective. …
"Sorry to go to that place," she added.
Among the problems early reviews have with the film is its somewhat fast-and-loose treatment of history, but Dahan said he is not a biographer or a historian, and his movie is about "cinema itself," particularly the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who is a character in the film. "What I tried to achieve," he explained, "was not to show facts … but … to depict the heart of things. I used my intuition and imagination to show what Grace Kelly might have looked like or done in that situation."
Cannes in the past few years has become a lightning rod for the lack of female participation in the film industry, and the festival is desperately trying to show it can change. As is often noted, this year's jury president, Jane Campion, is the only female director to win a Palme d'Or (for The Piano in 1993).
One of the other jurors is Sofia Coppola, another member of the small female-director club. She was the first U.S. female filmmaker – and only the third in history – to be nominated as a best director for an Academy Award (for 2003's Lost in Translation).
The jury, which will hand out the Palme d'Or and other prizes on May 24, includes three female actors (France's Carole Bouquet, Iran's Leila Hatami and South Korea's Jeon Do-yeon), two male actors (Mexico's Gael Garcia Bernal and Willem Dafoe from the U.S.) and two male directors (China's Zhangke Jia and Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn). Overall count: Five women to four men.
When it comes to the film selection, the balance isn't so good. At the April press conference announcing the festival, Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux made a point of noting that this year's official program includes a record 20 per cent female directors.
Well, sort of. There are 49 films in the Cannes program, including the competition, Un Certain Regard, and various out-of-competition and special screenings, some with multiple directors. In total, there are 58 male and 15 female directors. But one film, Bridges of Sarajevo, has 13 directors, and five of those are women, which boosts the count.
In the official competition, only two of the 19 directors are women, Japan's Naomi Kawase and Italy's Alice Rohrwacher. That's better than in 2010 and 2012 when no women were in the competition, but just slightly.
"There's some inherent sexism in the industry," said Campion at the jury's press conference. "Thierry Fremaux told us that only 7 per cent of the 1,800 films submitted were by women, but there are 20 per cent women in the different programs. It does very feel very undemocratic and women do notice, you know. Time and time again, we don't get our fair representation. Excuse me, gentlemen, but the guys seem to get all the cake."