It really sucks to be poor and of no social consequence, especially once you have had a taste of nobility and luxury. Never mind that most people in pre-revolutionary France were poor and oppressed to boot, Comtesse Jeanne de la Motte-Valois (Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry) is determined to win back her family’s lost ancestral estate and titles—she wants to be somebody again. Rather than accept her loss, she takes matters into her own hands when she leaves her adopted home and heads off to Versailles. The Affair of the Necklace is based on the true story of her efforts to regain both her former home and her family honor after the French monarchy murders her father when she is a child. The scandal that she set in motion reached the highest levels of the French court and church. (In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte claimed it was key to the start of the French Revolution.)
The film’s opening scene shows a French courtroom moments before a verdict is read. Immediately we flash back to the terrible day in 1767 that the king’s soldiers murdered Valois’ father for his protests about the poverty of the French people under Bourbon rule. We flash forward (still technically a flashback if the courtroom scene is the film’s present) to her arrival at Versailles as an adult. In order to be admitted to court as a noble, she has married Count Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody). But even with the title, she has no friends, influence, or cash. As her husband is often away, she hooks up with a young gigolo, Retaux de la Villette (Simon Baker), who teaches her how to negotiate court life to her advantage. His sudden interest in her is hard to understand, as is his later admission that he loves her and will risk his life to help her.
After she fails to have her family lineage reaffirmed and her estate returned to her officially, Jeanne and Retaux concoct a con of enormous portions to fund the purchase of the house. This is where things get complicated. (The filmmakers are to be lauded for refusing to tidy things up too much for narrative ease, though they do trim several characters from the historical record.)
They begin by forging letters implying Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) may be ready to end her hostility to Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce, who makes the character’s odd combination of debauchery and naiveté convincing). Rohan wants to curry favor with the Queen in the hopes that she will appoint him Prime Minister. It so happens that the royal jewelers are nearly bankrupted by their purchase of the diamonds to create a grand 2,800-caret necklace for a royal mistress. When she won’t buy the necklace, they approach Marie Antoinette, but she also refuses it, knowing full well it was intended for a “harlot.” The jewelers, who believe Valois is on intimate terms with the Queen, ask her to intercede on their behalf.
Valois, who has never received so much as a hello from her royal highness, agrees and through the forged letters, convinces the Cardinal that Marie really desires the necklace, but is afraid to have such an enormous extravagance made public. The Cardinal is persuaded to buy the necklace for the Queen and turns it over to Villette to deliver to her majesty. Only guess what? Villette gives it instead to Valois, who uses it to buy back her family home, convinced that she will be protected from the Cardinal’s murderous rage by his need to cover up any scandal involving the Queen.
This well-documented tale of treachery has all the elements for a riveting drama—kings and queens, phenomenal wealth represented by the necklace, jealous husbands, and ambitious courtiers. Also compelling are the interior and exterior scenes shot in France and Czechoslovakia: with their fabulous attention to accurate historical detail in costumes, architecture, and furnishings, they convey the era’s beauty and poverty. The juxtapositions of the chateaus and the Parisian streets amply reveal the tensions underlying the impending Revolution—when the impoverished “masses” would rise up against the decadent aristocrats.
Yet despite its potential, the film falls flat. It may be that the director, Charles Shyer, who has previously made contemporary suburban comedies such as Baby Boom and Father of the Bride, is a bit out of his element. He flounders on how to present the complicated story, with so many characters and plot twists and turns. Shyer employs the King’s House Minister Breteuil (Brian Cox) as a narrator whose voiceovers explain events. He is an aloof figure, watching the Bourbons slowly destroy themselves, and his detachment adds a chill to the film. His narration distances Valois’ story from the viewer—it’s not really hers anymore, but his.
Swank’s performance also adds to the film’s flatness. Where is the passion that one would expect in a woman committed to so daring a scheme? Where is the anger at her father’s murder? Where is the spirit to take on an absolute monarch and a cardinal of the Catholic Church? She faces murder, prison, and more with such meekness. Only once, when she pulls a pistol on an overly aggressive admirer, does her vehemence show. Valois has the potential to be a great character—a woman who refuses to stay in her socially prescribed feminine role, but Swank instead highlights her passive characteristics and domestic longings, creating Dullness where there should be fire.
The historical Valois remains ambiguous. Was she an injured ingénue desperate to regain her lost home so ruthlessly taken by an evil monarch? Or was she a wily schemer, completely devoid of conscience, who used people with callous disregard in her vain quest to return to her “rightful” place in society? The film doesn’t quite provide an answer, but does hammer home her status as “sympathetic,” through repeated, monotonous flashbacks to the murder of her father and her mother’s subsequent death of a broken heart. Heavy-handed pronouncements such Breteuil’s observation that she is “a damaged young woman” add to the portrait of her as misguided instead of evil. Even in the courtroom, when she is accused of theft, she seems more pitiable than wrong. She stands alone, a defenseless woman before a panel of parliamentary officials, begging them to consider that all her actions were motivated by a desire to regain her lost home and family honor.
This insistence on viewing her kindly seems incompatible with her actions. It seems odd that Valois does not recognize the evils she has done others in her attempts to regain this lost dream. Odder still is the fact that she is so consumed with desire to regain a place in the corrupt system that her father gave his life to protest. She can hardly be unaware of the social protest going on around her in the streets of Paris. After all, part of her scheme includes using a bit player in a street parody to play the Queen for Rohan. It is hard to reconcile Valois’ frankly brutal actions with the sympathetic character the film creates through soft lighting on her pitiable glances and delicate tears. Far better would have been to acknowledge her vengeful impulses and recognize that while understandable, her actions were neither justifiable nor noble. She would have made a grand villainess, rather than a bland schemer.