*** This review may contain spoilers ***
****Semi-spoilers - only if you've never heard of the historical
incident**** 'The Affair of the Necklace' is based on the notorious
'Diamond Necklace' scandal. The French court jewellers made an
elaborate necklace for Louis XV's mistress Mme du Barry. They then
tried to sell it to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI (the old King's
grandson), who was understandably hostile to the idea. Facing ruin, the
jewellers were targeted by the courtesan Comtesse Jeanne de la
Motte-Valois, her husband Nicolas, and co-plotter Rétaux de Vilette.
The de la Mottes and de Vilette devised a scam to get the necklace for
themselves, duping Cardinal de Rohan, who was anxious to regain court
favour. The story also features in 'Lady Oscar' (1978), based on the
manga 'Berusaiyu no bara' ('The Rose of Versailles'), and the 1979
anime serial of the same name.
'The Affair of the Necklace' opens with Jeanne's trial, and proceeds in extended flashback. It is visual beautiful, with exquisite 18C costumes and decor, but fails to live up to its appearance. The practicalities of the fraud - the stealing of notepaper, forging of letters, disguising of actress/prostitute Nicole Leguay d'Oliva as the Queen - are depicted reasonably effectively. But the script lurches uncomfortably between serious drama and attempts at comedy. While the supporting cast works hard with the material, Hilary Swank seems uncomfortable as Jeanne. She is not helped by the script's sentimentalisation of the character.
Hollywood takes the premise that a film's protagonist must be made sympathetic and likable, so Jeanne is given a back-story reminiscent of Maximus's family in 'Gladiator' and of other recent revenge-driven pseudo-historical epics (e.g. the equally fictitious scene of the father and brother's executions in 'Braveheart'). Her idyllic childhood is curtailed when, in a much-belated (by a couple of centuries!) mopping-up of the previous royal dynasty, troops of the reigning Bourbons ransack the Valois château. They kill Jeanne's father, and her pregnant mother dies of grief. As a result, Jeanne is determined to regain her rightful title and estates. So far, so Scarlett O'Hara vowing she'll never go hungry again...
However, this tragedy - motivation for the 'wronged heroine setting out to avenge her family and regain her rights' - *never happened*. Jeanne came from an impoverished rural family: her Valois descent was illegitimate and had no political significance by 18C; her father died of drink. She gained a taste for the high life as a lady's companion, and became a courtesan to finance it. However, the film periodically revisits the fictional 'childhood trauma' to justify the means she adopts to further her fortunes. We are meant to view her as a misguided but essentially good girl, a victim, and some kind of proto-revolutionary, rather than a greedy call-girl on the make. But the film would have been more interesting, I think, had it taken a less ingratiating approach and shown us Jeanne de la Motte the adventuress and courtesan. Certainly it would have given Hilary Swank more to get her teeth into, instead spending so much time looking dewy-eyed and wronged. The concluding captions are also misleading: there is no mystery concerning Jeanne's fate - an attempt to escape creditors!
Hilary looks too obviously a modern American girl in fancy dress: skinny and toothy, not an 18C style of beauty. Given that much of the supporting cast was British (or Australian, in Simon Baker's case), her variable accent jarred, too. Joely Richardson, with her porcelain-doll looks (as in 'The Patriot', she is an actress who really suits 18C costume), was more successful as Marie Antoinette, although too thin and minus the Viennese accent.
The romance between Jeanne and Marc-Antoine Rétaux de Vilette (Simon Baker) also fails: de Vilette's elevation from opportunistic gigolo to 'noble romantic hero' status is unconvincing. Nicolas, her dissolute husband (Adrien Brody), could have been introduced earlier, to show how Jeanne got a foothold in society - a significant narrative gap. He in particular fell victim to the film's awkward shifts in tone, sometimes a comic foil, sometimes to be taken seriously as a fellow-conspirator. However, Adrien looks exquisitely handsome in (or partly out of!) 18C costume - long hair, unfastened frilled shirt - and is particularly dashing in an all-too-brief swordfight. I'd love to see him swashbuckle more! (He'd be great as André-Louis in 'Scaramouche' or the tragic Michael in a more faithful 'Prisoner of Zenda'!)
The supporting cast gave fine performances: Brian Cox was as reliable as ever as Baron de Breteuil, and Jonathan Pryce stole the show as the flamboyant Cardinal de Rohan, Prince of the Church and devout libertine. (The film did not indicate that the Cardinal was *already* one of Jeanne's sexual 'clients' *before* the necklace conspiracy.) Christopher Walken's Cagliostro could have been used to greater effect: we saw hints that he recognised in Jeanne a kindred spirit, a fellow trickster adroitly playing on the credulity of others. Simon Shackleton and Joely Richardson, as the King and Queen, make the most of their brief scenes: out of touch with their world, but by no means the malevolent caricatures portrayed in the street theatricals and pamphlets we see. We are nevertheless expected (unjustly) to take Jeanne's part against the Queen.
But despite the quality of the acting and visual charm of the costumes and locations, 'The Affair of the Necklace' fails because of its uncertain tone and transformation of Jeanne de la Motte-Valois into a sentimental heroine. Had the story been treated as a costumed heist movie, had it not attempted to paint its unscrupulous confidence-tricksters as romantic heroes, it could have shown more spirit and dash. "All that glisters is not gold", let alone diamonds, and 'The Affair of the Necklace' is ultimately mere paste: it would take more than Cagliostro's alchemy to transmute it.
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