The Movie: The Affair of the Necklace


In 2001, The Affair of the Necklace, a high-budget Hollywood production with A-list stars (okay, maybe B-list), was released to the world. The movie is about my favorite jewel heist: the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Or, more pithily, the Affair of the Necklace. Hilary Swank stars as Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, Simon Baker as Retaux de Villette, Adrian Brody as Nicolas de La Motte, and Christopher Walken as Count Cagliostro. A very young Hayden Panetierre plays Jeanne as a child. The complete list of actors, as well as other info, pictures, and comments, is available over here at IMDB.

The movie is narrated by Baron de Breteuil, a relatively tangential character. His voice is useful because this story needs some narration; dialogue simply couldn’t get across all the information that the audience needs to make sense of this complicated story. It’s effective in getting that information out, but it also gives a slightly melodramatic tinge to the movie. It’s as if someone thinks it’s Othello. His narrating harps on a comment made by Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) concerning the affair of the necklace–that the affair was one three events that brought down the French monarchy. One of the failings of the film is that it doesn’t address that statement. While Marie Antoinette, played by Joely Richardson, plays a part, the conditions in France at the time aren’t explored at all…….

The movie begins at the end, then skips back to show us how we got there. This way we understand the stakes right away; if we jump into the story when Jeanne, Nicolas, and Retaux are plotting a heist, the gravity of what they didn’t wouldn’t be obvious until the end of the movie. What doesn’t work is the speech. Jeanne had been made by the filmmakers into some kind of freedom fighter. She has been greatly wronged by the monarchy and is only trying to (valiantly) get back what was taken. The problem from a historical point of view is that this is patently untrue and kind of unfair to Louis XVI. The film shows Jeanne’s parents being murdered and the house torched by soldiers. In reality, Jeanne’s father was a failure who squandered the last of the family’s inheritance and married a gold-digging maid who took their children to Paris, made them beg on the streets, then abandoned them. The problem with the movie’s portrayal of Jeanne’s childhood–from a storytelling point of view–is that it makes Jeanne a much less interesting character. A character who is greedy and a crook, but ultimately bases her claims in the truth, is much more interesting than a character who is whining about what was taken from her. This is the rather lame attempt on the part of the movie makers to show that the monarchy was destined to fall. They destroyed a family, therefore they were doomed to be removed by plucky plebeians like Jeanne.

As the movie progresses, we meet Cardinal Rohan and Count Cagliostro. Rohan is played well by Jonathan Pryce, but he spends too much time ravishing young women around him, making lewd suggestions, and asking questions. This Cardinal hardly seems capable of being fooled by what is–in essence–a fairly transparent scam. As for Cagliostro: he is played by Christopher Walken with his usual pinache. Cagliostro was a bit of an oddity in his own time, kind of the Kris Angel of the 1700’s. Strangely, though he’s a very odd addition, his character rung true. It’s clear he’s aware of his own games and that he’s good at what he does.

We also meet Retaux and Nicolas. Although Simon Baker’s Villette is sympathetic, the love story between him and Jeanne feels forced because it is. It’s little more than the usual Hollywood trick of inserting a formulaic love story into a far more interesting, more complicated reality. Jeanne and Retaux were what you might call friends with benefits. He offered his skills as a forger, and he added some dramatic flare on one occasion. He was also, yes, a gigolo. There’s no evidence that Jeanne was in love with him. He was, however, one of the few people she didn’t name when she started singing like a canary in the Bastille. Jeanne and her husband Nicolas didn’t necessarily have the best of marriages, but they were at least allies. This comes across well in the movie because it’s one of the more complicated relationships.   Adrian Brody was a bit of a mismatch physically for the part. The daring escape from the police through the streets of Paris was unnecessary, really, and just another one of Hollywood’s attempts to interest its audience.

After the initial moment, we jump back to in time to Jeanne’s early attempts to get attention at court. After meeting Retaux, she attempts to manipulate the Cardinal into giving her money, and then into helping her steal a very, very expensive necklace. The plotting moves along at a good pace. A lot more focus on the plotting and manipulation would have really helped, along with one less chase scene and a one or two fewer scenes of Cardinal Rohan seducing a girl or otherwise acting like a crazed man in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

The plot goes sour and Jeanne is arrested in what is meant to be a dramatic moment at her family’s old abandoned house (even though we’re given the impression earlier that the place is burnt). Nicolas flees, Retaux tries and fails to flee, and the Cardinal is arrested at Versailles. Cagliostro also tries and fails to get away. Then the romance between Jeanne and Retaux pops back into the picture. He gave up what he knew because he was tortured, and she forgives him. Of course, nothing remotely like this happened to the real characters, but I digress. Jeanne is brought back to the courtroom, the others are all acquitted (except for Retaux), and she’s told she will have to wait for her verdict. She’s told it in private and gives a speech that falls flat about “reaching too far”. It falls flat because that entire theme is too syrupy-sad, too overplayed. Jeanne’s plea doesn’t do any good, and she’s sentenced to be beaten, branded, and thrown in jail for life.

For me, the most effective scene is the final one where Jeanne has escaped to London and is taking refuge. The epilogue, telling us how our characters ended up, plays over images of Jeanne walking down a corridor and out a door into the rain. The imagery is lovely and fits with the words that tell us Jeanne died in London a few years after arriving there. She was pushed, jumped, or fell out of a window.

To speak generally, the dialogue is stiff and delivered just as stiffly. There are worse offenders, but the period dialogue wasn’t handled well. The actors deliver the lines without making me cringe, but most of it lacked flow. Hilary Swank’s delivery was leaden. What worked very well were the costumes and sets. It was a genuinely lovely movie. The gowns were appropriate, generally time-specific, and stunning. I couldn’t ask more out of a Hollywood film. I also enjoyed seeing bits of Versailles. The location used for the La Motte family home had a fantastically ancien regime feel to it.

This was a good movie–nothing spectacular. I think the material wasn’t truly done justice, but I don’t think the medium can really do it justice. There are too many intricacies and characters to fit into two hours. A miniseries might be more appropriate if film is used at all. Naturally, as a writer I think that the only way to really tell this story is in a book, and of course that should be in novel form (my story is still going around to agents). My biggest disappointment in this movie was the limited role of Nicole d’Oliva, who is the main character in my own telling of the story. Poor Nicole is relegated to a bit part. She’s an actress who is spotted by Nicolas and shows up for a few minutes, then is brought back as a surprise witness at the trial. I know the focus of this film was Jeanne, but I can’t help but want more of Nicole!

If I were an official film reviewer, this would all probably be more coherent. Out of 10, I’d give it a 6. And next time I will return (after what I hope will be a much shorter delay) with the details of what was and wasn’t historical fact in The Affair of the Necklace.


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