Affair of the Necklace (2001)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

   

Napoleon credited the French Revolution to three things. An unsympathetic monarchy, political unrest abroad, and "the affair of the necklace." Though taking drastic steps to make the heroine worthy of respect (the real Jeanne La Motte was far from an ideal role model), this rendition is exquisite. It's one of the most captivating films I've ever seen, despite its immorality. The story centers around Jeanne La Motte (Hillary Swank), who has been left penniless by the political unrest in France. Her father was accused of conspiring against his nation by siding with the early stages of the Republic and his lands were seized by the government. Ten years later Jeanne seeks to have them restored by enlisting the aid of Marie Antoinette (Jolie Richardson). She hopes her petition proving herself a member of royalty will engage the queen's sympathy, but the queen ignores her attempts to gain an audience.

 

Her beauty, flash, and spirit catch the eye of Rtaux de Vilette (Sim Baker), the court's resident playboy and a favorite of many of the more distinguished women in Antoinette's inner circle. Drawn by her naive desire to see wrongs righted, he agrees to help her gain access to higher powers by manipulating Cardinal Rohan (Pryce), the church's lecherous authority in France. Animosity has long existed between Antoinette and the cardinal for a remark he made about bedding half the Austrian court, including her mother. Knowing this weakness can be used to their advantage, Jeanne and Rtaux create a complex scheme to bring about the return of her property. It is further complicated by the sudden return of her husband (Aidan Brody). 

 

An elaborately expensive diamond necklace -- considered the most stunning in the world -- is in need of a new owner. The royal jewelers were commissioned to make it for the king's mistress, who has been recently banished from court. Hoping Antoinette would find satisfaction wearing it, they take it to her with a plea for mercy -- it has placed them in debt. Sneering at them, Antoinette refuses its purchase. When the jewelers learn of Jeanne's falsified friendship with the queen, they enlist her help to persuade the monarch to purchase the jewels. The consequences will send France spiraling into turmoil, and one woman will be held responsible for the downfall of an empire. The film is not only intriguing but also compelling, even though the motivations of the heroine are wrong. She wants her property back and isn't above stealing, lying, and blackmailing in order to get it when public avenues fail. 

 

The movie doesn't quite know whose side to take; we are empathetic for the main characters but also slightly sorry for the monarchy who receive the resulting backlash. Even the cardinal, lecherous and immoral as he may be, we hope comes out relatively unscathed. From a purely visual standpoint it's a masterpiece. The costuming, set design, and cinematography are breathtaking. I've rarely been kept captivated by such beautiful camera angels. Antoinette's entrance amid a showering of flower petals, her visitation to Jeanne in the prison in the gently falling snow, and a midnight meeting in the garden are just a few of the delights. Rich colors and textures carry us back to a politically unstable France on the brink of revolution. The movie also underlines the greatest determent to the failed attempt for liberty -- the lack of God. Some might be offended by the cardinal's portrayal, for not only does he indulge in sinful pleasures, he also consults a resident alchemist and seer, Count Cagliostro (Christopher Walkin).

 

During this time the church was infinitely corrupted. Other movies also show this darker side. Cagliostro impresses his guests by accurately recounting Jeanne's life in an arranged reading but we know him to be a fraud; she pays him to help her manipulate the cardinal. Jeanne's marriage is one of convenience and both partners seek fulfillment elsewhere. Twice we briefly see female upper nudity -- on a prostitute fawning over Cagliostro in a brothel, and when the cardinal rips open a woman's dress. (Other bodices are also ripped open, with clear intimations.) Jeanne and Rtaux get as far as undressing one another and rolling around on the floor before her husband announces his presence. Innuendo hints at homosexual relationships among the court and Rtaux is (justly) accused of being a plaything for older women. There's very little violence (a woman is whipped and branded with an iron, and a beheading is implied) and only occasional language (three uses of GD, an abuse of deity, and one minor profanity).

 

The sexual content is light but spread throughout the film, and makes the movie difficult to completely enjoy. One graphic scene could have been easily skimmed through, but Anglophiles will have to endure tantalizing glimpses of immorality in their search for this jewel. It's something I'm really very sorry for because the movie is intelligent and could have easily been aimed at a wider age group with some curbing of sexual implications. If you can handle the more mature elements without being offended The Affair of the Necklace is an interesting historical piece with a dark but memorable conclusion.