The Fifth Element opened the Cannes film festival in 1997, accompanied by an opulent party that cost upwards of $1 million, which included a “futuristic ballet”, fireworks, a Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show and a free watch for every guest. Reviewers of what was then the most expensive French film ever made were not so generous.
Variety called it a “hodgepodge”; online magazine Slate, “a giant Gallic turd”. The negative notices prompted star Bruce Willis to say, “No one up here pays attention to reviews. The written word is going the way of the dinosaur.”
The Fifth Element certainly defied its detractors, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of that year. Unbowed, Willis returned to Cannes in 1998 with Armageddon, at which the press giggled loudly.
This year, Cannes opened with what should have been a sure thing: Grace of Monaco, a lavish Euro-American portrait of Grace Kelly, with the preternaturally elegant Nicole Kidman as the retired Hollywood siren. Directed by Olivier Dahan, lauded for his Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, and shot at various Mediterranean beauty spots, how could it possibly fail?
In the flurry of overnight reviews, Grace was described as “so awe-inspiringly wooden it is basically a fire risk” by The Guardian, “a minor royal Euro-pudding” by Screen Daily and “a dreary parade of lifeless celebrity waxworks” by The Hollywood Reporter. Even the Monaco royal family lined up at the stocks, denouncing the film as “historically inaccurate” and saying that it “cannot under any circumstances be classified as a biopic”.
“Airless” “Awful” “Blank” “Flimsy” – the barrage of rotten fruit was relentless. But, to echo Willis, who pays attention to reviews anyway? Critics are paid to have an opinion, and, as Mark Kermode observes in his book Hatchet Job, “Being entertainingly negative can help a critic build their career… In terms of individual risk (to reputation, to dignity, to pride) it’s invariably safer for a critic to laugh than cry.” Maybe, but Grace of Monaco arrives in UK cinemas this week still dripping with tomatoes. Will it survive its critical lambasting? Or will people rush to the cinema to see if it’s really that bad?
Diana, another royal biopic with a bankable star (Naomi Watts) and a highly regarded European director (Downfall’s Oliver Hirschbiegel), was similarly mauled. The fallout may have been entertaining as a spectator sport, but the film’s theatrical release in America was scaled back as a result of its fate in the UK. Heavy words, even lightly thrown, have financial consequences.
Newspapers wagged by their own websites now jostle to get the first review online, and no international festival screening can slip under the radar. I’ve signed embargoes that other titles ignore. After whispers of post-production panic, George Clooney’s war caper The Monuments Men was screened for critics days before its release, hoping to bypass critical opprobrium. The reviews were poor, but audiences still marched to cinemas and it made over $150 million world-wide. Bruce Willis must have been smiling.
With the rise of social media, everyone’s a critic nowadays. Tweets and texts from paying punters can condemn a new release on opening night, even if it managed to survive the press coverage. Maybe all this is just democracy in action. But it’s certainly to blame for the death of one cinematic princess. And there, but for the gods, goes Grace.