The Affair of the Necklace–Playing with History

The Affair of the Necklace (2001) staring Hilary Swank, Simon Baker, and Adrian Brody among others, has touches of historical accuracy that make the inaccuracies all the more difficult to bear.

Take for instance Jeanne’s fainting spell at the beginning of the movie. Jeanne is trying to get the attention of the queen, Marie-Antoinette. The normal ways have failed, so Jeanne decides to “faint” in the middle of one of the queen’s chambers (probably one of the ones furthest from the queen because that’s all she could get access to). Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, self-styled Comtesse de La Motte, did indeed faint in front of an important personage in an attempt to get attention. The person was Madame Elisabeth, the king’s sister, not Marie-Antoinette, the king’s wife. And Madame Elisabeth and her friend the Comtesse d’Artois (sister-in-law to the king) actually helped Jeanne for a short period, until Jeane started sleeping with the prolific Comte d’Artois. Or, that’s how rumor would have it.

In fact, speaking first in general terms, Jeanne’s character is ever so slightly off. First of all, she doesn’t have the smart, witty, and greedy edge of the real Jeanne, who was always brazen and unabashed. And the mentality was too modern–which is to say too sexually moral. Jeanne’s era was very loose as far as sexual matters go. Today, it’s hard to quite get a grip on the mentality. Everyone says that Hollywood is full of sex, but France in the ancien regime was a pretty lascivious place. It was assumed men had mistresses as well as wives and that women had lovers as well as husbands; in fact, it was unusual for husbands and wives to have much to do with one another at all. At least, this was the case in high society (this may be due to the way knowledge comes down to us–all the salacious stories make for interesting reading so we hear about them more than the faithful couples, whoever they were ). There was a fairly simple code: as long as marital duties were fulfilled and no one made too much of a spectacle of themselves, pretty much anything was acceptable behind closed doors.

Jeanne in particular wasn’t exactly known for chastity. She was married to Nicolas de la Motte, but was almost certainly sleeping with Retaux de Villette much of the time that she was married to Nicolas. She probably slept with Jacques Claude Beugnot (an old friend) and Cardinal Rohan, too, and there were stories about her and a cleric in her earlier days. In any case, this is pretty well glossed over in the movie, though they make hay out of the fact that Retaux was a gigolo (the historical Retaux was, too). There’s very little to suggest that Jeanne loved Retaux or vice-versa. In fact, Retaux spilled his guts when he was arrested. Jeanne did refuse to name him and a handsome young servant in Cardinal Rohan’s household when she was questioned, but she probably spared them for the simple fact that they were handsome. But since this is a product of Hollywood, the heroin had to have her love interest.

Quite correctly, that love interest is not her husband Nicolas. Jeanne and Nicolas had something of a working relationship, though at one point they were probably in love to some extent (it’s impossible to measure that sort of thing). They certainly were both willing and able to collaborate on an elaborate hoax to steal an extraordinarily expensive diamond necklace. Nicolas, at least, had no qualms about fleeing France when his wife was arrested, leaving her to her fate. Jeanne didn’t implicate Nicolas, but of course she was sticking to the story that only the queen was at fault.

The most glaring historical inaccuracy is the portrayal of Jeanne’s childhood. In the movie, Jeanne’s father supposedly spoke out against the corruption of the monarchy and was punished for it by having his house burned. It seems both he and Jeanne’s mother were murdered. The reality is very, very different. Jeanne was the scion of a bastard line of the royal Valois family. They had a grand heritage, but her ancestors had squandered all the money. Jeanne’s father was pretty useless on top of it all. Jeanne, her sisters, and her brother grew up in abject poverty, in spite of being the last surviving descendants of the Valois kings (albeit from an illegitimate line). Jeanne’s mother had been a household servant the who had caught the eye of the young baron. When the money ran out, the family picked up and went to Paris from their leaky old chateau  in the countryside. There, things went from bad to worse. Jeanne’s father died of natural causes, and her mother found another man. Jeanne’s mother abandoned her children, who were left to beg on the streets. Jeanne eventually met a noblewoman who was shocked to hear of Jeanne’s lineage and took the orphans in.

This is where the movie is perfectly correct. Jeane was obsessed with the rights she should have had as a (distant) relative of the king. However, the real Jeanne led a tough childhood and, not too surprisingly, was mostly interested in money, not honor or retribution for wrongs (unless those retributions took the form of cash). She wasn’t very good at holding onto money, either. She was granted a certain amount of money by the crown, but wanted more. How much revenge motivated her plot to steal the Diamond Necklace isn’t clear. Maybe in the back of her mind she realized that somehow the queen would be blamed and she could get some payback for the way she had been–in her own mind– swept under the rug. In any case, when Jeanne says in the movie that her property was usurped, that’s entirely untrue; there was no property to usurp. She just wasn’t given as much as she wanted by the crown, who had very little obligation to an obscure, very distant relative.

Another partially true tidbit is Jeanne’s meeting with a minister. Jeanne did meet with a few ministers here and there. She went to Calonne, the finance minister, who apparently entertained her pleas for money and got her a little extra. In protest at not getting more, she sat down in his office for three hours and refused to move until she got 2400 francs more. In the instance of Calonne at least, there is the implication that she returned the kindness (or paid for it) with sexual favors.

One rather unfortunate error in the movie is that Cardinal Rohan made an “inappropriate joke” about Marie-Antoinette’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. There was a real and long-standing rift between Rohan and Marie-Antoinette, but in reality the estrangement wasn’t due to an inappropriate joke. While Marie-Antoinette was still dauphine, she and Madame du Barry (the king’s mistress) were enemies and Cardinal Rohan was the ambassador to Austria.  At that time, Poland was being divied up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In a letter to Madame du Barry, Rohan wrote that he had found Maria Theresa weeping over Poland’s woes: in one hand she held a handkerchief to dry her tears, but in the other she held a sword to slice up poor Poland. Unfortunately for Rohan, Madame Du Barry read his insulting opinion aloud at a dinner party. Marie-Antoinette was not amused. From that day on, the Cardinal was in deep disfavor with her.

In the movie, Rohan doubts Jeanne at several points. He asks for assurances. In reality, he was pretty trusting of her all things considered. He accepted that the letters he received were from the queen because they were on gold-bordered paper and were signed with her name. He accepted that Jeanne was a true confidante of the queen. He accepted that the queen needed some cash loans quickly. He even accepted that she would choose him as a secret emissary to purchase a fabulous diamond necklace on her behalf.  He accepted it mostly because he was desperate for it to be true. He did have some doubts, which prompted Jeanne to orchestrate the Grove of Venus scene, which he believed to be real proof that the queen wanted to favor him again. He more or less fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The portrayal of Nicole d’Oliva isn’t bad, per se, but it misses the mark. Nicole is the main character of the novel I’m writing, and I naturally have some affection for her. In the movie she is an actress who plays the queen in dirty plays put on for the masses. Granted, those kinds of plays were put on, and there was an enormous quantity of pornographic material about the queen in circulation. But Nicole was a prostitute, pure and simple. She happened to look a little like the queen, so she was chosen to pretend to be her in the Grove of Venus.

This part of the story, the Grave of Venus scene,  is  garbled in the movie, and there’s an unnecessary chase scene at the end. The historical Nicole was brought by the La Mottes to the Grove of Venus, just beside the palace of Versailles, where she was to meet a nobleman, hand him a flower, and tell him, “You know what this means.” None of this really happens in the movie. The historical scene was short and to the point. But in the movie, he kneels down and kisses the hem, etc, but there’s no rose and Nicole doesn’t utter those words. The scene is centered on the Cardinal throwing himself at the queen. In the historical Grove of Venus, the secret rendezvous came to an end abruptly when Jeanne called out that someone was coming. The noise was actually Retaux, who was there to break up the meeting so that the Cardinal wouldn’t linger too long and figure out he wasn’t really talking to the queen. Everyone scattered and went home. No chases were involved.

I’m going to skip ahead to the arrests and trial. Jeanne truly was arrested at her home in Bar-sur-Aube (she returned home after stealing from the Cardinal so she could show off). Nicolas did flee. Cagliostro and Retaux both tried to escape, too, but were captured. Nicole d’Oliva’s story, again, is completely changed. The real Nicole, after she was dropped like a hot potato by the La Mottes who had no use for her anymore, ended up going to Brussels. She was arrested there shortly after Jeanne was arrested in Bar-sur-Aube. She was brought back to France and imprisoned with the others in the Bastille. She actually gave birth while in the Bastille awaiting trial. In the movie, she pops up as a surprise witness. She was certainly no surprise witness (she was on trial, too, after all), but she was something of a sensation. The people were sympathetic to her because she was a simple, uneducated young woman with a baby who probably had no idea what she had gotten herself into when she agreed to pretend to be the queen. Nicole was acquitted with a reprimand from the court for impersonating the queen.

Speaking of the verdicts of the accused (Jeanne, Retaux, Rohan, and Cagliostro), the movie shows them in the courtroom, standing in front of the judges and waiting to be told their fates. The French system was very different from the current American or British system. Prisoners often weren’t informed of what they were accused of, and often didn’t know the sentence until it was carried out. Jeanne, for one, was in her prison cell when she heard shouting in the streets. The public had heard the verdict, but Jeanne wasn’t told until several hours later that she had been convicted. She didn’t know her sentence until she was wrenched out of bed and dragged outside to be flogged and branded. In the movie, she is even told her sentence in private, allowing for the most cringe-worthy part of the entire movie: her little speech, which unfortunately encapsulates all the things wrong with the movie. The writers tried to make her some freedom fighter who had been deeply wronged by the crown. It doesn’t work because it isn’t genuine and it isn’t truthful. Trying to make a thief into a freedom fighter is a pretty far stretch, especially in this case. “I stole the necklace because I wasn’t given my rights . . . ” If you asked the historical Jeanne, she would have said she didn’t steal the necklace at all. If you forced her to be honest (a very tall order indeed) she would have told you she stole it because she was dead broke and she deserved to have the best of everything.

Now, there were some surprisingly accurate tidbits throughout the movie. For instance, when Jeanne uses the queen’s tendency to nod at the crowd to convince the Cardinal that the queen is nodding at him. This is definitely true. Also true, the letter that the jewelers sent to Marie-Antoinette thanking her for buying the necklace. Marie-Antoinette really did receive the exact latter that is quoted in the movie, and she really did think the jewelers had gone mad. She totally discounted it because it made no sense to her–she never bought any such necklace so she thought there must be some mistake. It took a few weeks for them to put together the basic of the what had happened. Cardinal Rohan really did burn the letters he received “from the queen”. These were actually forged by Retaux and might have been wonderful evidence during the trial, but alas he’d burned them. And Retaux really did pose as the queen’s messenger when the necklace was handed over. Then he whisked away, but he certainly wasn’t going to the queen. What exactly happened to the diamonds from that point is unknown. They’ve disappeared into the ether.

I should also note that the design of the necklace was changed to make it seem less gaudy to modern eyes. That’s not really too big of a deal in my books.

So, although there are some major errors and some misreadings of 18th century French morality and legal proceedings, I really enjoyed the touches of historical accuracy and the attempt at telling the true story. Of course, someone decided to make Jeanne more sympathetic, but I think she’s best enjoyed as a kind of antihero.

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