The Affair of the Necklace
the advertising featuring star Hilary Swank, you might think The
Affair of the Necklace will be a chick flick. But let's review.
A chick flick does not have nudity. A chick flick does not show an orgy,
no matter how oblique. And a chick flick definitely does not co-star
Instead, the film
shines light on a true 18th century celebrity scandal that did, quite
literally, change the world. At its center lay Comtesse Jeanne De La
Motte-Valois (Swank), but don't let that put you to sleep. Disgraced
by the court of Louis XVI, she schemed to get back her family's reputation,
drawing in many of Paris' elite. By the time she was finished, the seeds
for the French Revolution went into full bloom.
Shyer has a reputation for making comedies that only occasionally carry
important messages (he wrote Smokey and the Bandit). No one can
blame him for wanting to try a change of pace.
But the resulting
film cannot decide what pace to take. With its air of celebrity scandal
and national outrage, a satire reminding us of our own time might work.
It could follow the path of thrilling adventure, as the Comtesse historically
made a daring escape from prison.
From the set-up, though,
a caper film would have been nice. Jeanne winds her way through the court
of Versailles, consistently being spurned by the Queen, Marie Antoinette,
played with a giddy self-absorption by Joely Richardson. Only after the
roguish gigolo Retaux (Simon Baker) enters Jeanne's life does she learn
how to manipulate the vanities of the French upper crust.
At Retaux's advice,
she ensnares a patron in the form of Cardinal De Rohan (Jonathan Pryce),
a man of the cloth with terribly earthy desires. He seeks to be Prime
Minister, but the Queen has never forgiven him for spurning her mother.
So when a beautiful young woman approaches him claiming to be the Queen's
confidante, how could he resist? It also helps that the mystic Count
Cagliostro (Walken) appears to believe the woman's story, though he
has reasons of his own.
As the deceptions
turn into actual embezzlement, a little larceny, and a midnight rendezvous,
it all sounds like great fun. But the film never embraces this, save
for a few moments with Walken in fine lunacy.
Instead, any scene
that threatens to turn comedic gets brought down by a heavy score from
David Newman, resonant strings reminding us that the guillotine can
never be far away. Worse, an intrusive voice-over by the King's Minister
Breteuil (Brian Cox) constantly tells us that this can only end in tears.
That the voice-over also explains for us what each scene means only
adds insult to injury.
further down are dialogue exchanges in which characters speak eloquently
(as one might expect) but ridiculously specific. The purpose of courtly
language is to dance around a subject, not hit it on the nose and leave
the audience with no need to interpret. As screenwriting guru Robert
McKee once said, "we only talk that way in California." He also said,
"show, don't tell," and writer John Sweet could surely have used that
And let us also
face up to the decadence of pre-Revolutionary France having never seemed
so dull. Cardinal de Rohan is said to host parties of "orgiastic dimension,"
but when we finally see one, everyone just lies around smoking opium.
Technically decadent, but not visually so. Making one of those lotus-eaters
Walken only taunts us.
As for the actual
royalty, famously boobish, they come across as only slightly self-absorbed.
Maybe Mel Brooks ruined it for everyone after, but Louis XVI should
not be someone who appears to be a reasonable man, played by someone
who fades from memory the instant he leaves the screen. The credits
list Simon Shackleton in the role, but it could have been a block of
Okay, so it could
all be saved in performance. Richardson, Walken and Baker all seem to
be having fun, and they have the courtesy to let us in on it. If you've
been watching Baker in the rather dull CBS show The Guardian,
his performance here will especially come as a surprise. This guy can
cad with the best of them.
At the heart of
The Affair of the Necklace, though, stands an actress desperate
to prove that her Best Actress win was no fluke. It wasn't, but you
wouldn't know that from this movie.
Since the movie
posits Jeanne as the calculating, driven (not without reason) mastermind
behind the events, it would have been good for Swank to show us steel.
Instead she plays up the insecurity and pain of the Comtesse, a trick
that worked in Boys Don't Cry, where Brandon Teena was always
only a half-step away from getting caught. Never for a moment can we
believe that she herself is the clever one, or even that she has the
resolve to do whatever must be done to achieve her goals.
And in a sea of
legitimate British accents (and Walken's vague "Continental" one), Swank
has only a tenuous grip on her faux one. Every now and then that
jarring mid-western twang breaks through. She should have chosen the
route of another American in the cast, Adrien Brody. He underplays his
accent so that any slips just don't register. But then, neither does
Such an important
(to Europe, anyway) and interesting incident, the film should have been
more gripping. Not only will it be lost in the Christmas crunch, but
this one should more likely send you to the library to find out what
really happened. The more you know…
What's It Worth?