The Affair of the Necklace

From 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 Christopher Walken.

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.

Director Charles 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.

Dragging things 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 lesson.

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 wood.

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 he.

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? $4.50

Derek McCaw

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