Her birthright was stolen. Her dignity taken. Her rights denied.
History, especially French history, is not my strongest subject; thus, I cannot fully comment on the historical accuracy of this film that is "based upon real events." After doing some light research, I have learned that the story presented here is more or less accurate. It presents this scandalous situation, that is often sited as a primary catalyst of the French Revolution, in an appealing and relatable manner.
Becoming a Judge has allowed me to make some self-realizations on my movie preferences. With this film, I've made a delightful insight: I enjoy period pieces. In the back of my mind I've somewhat known that, but The Affair of the Necklace has cemented that notion and given me yet another direction of film to explore and enjoy. Thus, I think you might already be able to guess that I enjoyed this film. It didn't last very long in the theaters, which is a shame, but you should make an effort to see this film if you enjoy historical-based drama in any way.
Facts of the Case
The actual chain of events of history, and thus this movie, are somewhat complicated to follow. How do you succinctly describe events that purportedly led to the French Revolution without boring you to death? I'm not entirely sure, but I'll try to make this as painless as possible. Everyone, please open your textbooks to page 1785. Please keep in mind that some of the following events cannot be completely verified as there are multiple, often conflicting versions of the events detailed in the various memoirs of those involved.
As told in this movie, Countess Jeanne de la Motte-Valois (Hilary Swank, Insomnia, Boys Don't Cry) wants to restore honor to her family name. When she was very young, the King killed her father for his actions against the monarchy. It was said that he incited people to riot; however, Jeanne recalls a man that cared about the people and spoke out in their favor but never did anything against the King or Queen. It is also believed that the Valois family itself can be traced back to royalty. Nonetheless, the Valois name is now disdained in French society.
Over the years, Jeanne has tried various methods to present her case to the monarchy; but every attempt has been shunned. As she is the last surviving member of her family, upon her death the Valois name will fade away. Hence, the Royal Family has made it known that no one is to grant her an audience to hear her story. As fate would have it, chance has favored her an opportunity to plead her case.
One evening after a singing performance by Queen Marie Antoinette herself, Jeanne attempts to present her lineage to the Queen. To gain her attention, Jeanne feigns a fainting spell directly in front of the Queen's path; but she is not so easily fooled and Marie continues past Jeanne with barely a look. However, her act has caught the attention of two individuals: House Minister Baron de Breteuil (Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity, The Rookie, Manhunter) and Rétaux de Villete. The former is all too familiar with Jeanne and her continued attempts to speak with the Queen while the latter was simply smitten that evening by Jeanne's beauty. Rétaux, a gigolo in the Royal Court, convinces Breteuil to allow him to escort her from the area. As he escorts Jeanne back to her home, Rétaux begins to insinuate himself into her life. Just a word here and there, but he is very sharp and can tell that she is up to something; and he wonders why exactly she is trying to talk to the Queen. Jeanne reveals her legacy to Rétaux who is surprised by the revelation but is also intrigued by the possibilities.
At this point, all Jeanne wants to do is speak to the Queen and is completely unaware of the futile battle that she is waging. Fortunately, Rétaux is willing to help, and the first step is getting Jeanne an appointment with the Minister of Titles; this is something Jeanne has never been able to accomplish. Fortunately, Rétaux is a "friend" of the Minister's aunt and gets Jeanne the necessary meeting. This meeting is essential as only he can certify the Valois lineage, which would give credence to her claims about her dishonored family. Once in the meeting, nothing goes well for Jeanne and she learns the extent of the animosity of the Royal Family for her cause. She has no chance of succeeding.
I'm already getting bogged down in the details and the story has truly yet to begin. Thus, I shall endeavor to move along a bit more quickly, so please take excellent notes.
Jeanne is extremely distressed by the revelation in the Minister's office. Yet Rétaux is still well versed in the machinations of the Court and has a plan for Jeanne. What is needed is a patron for Jeanne; someone who has influence, power, prestige, and money. This person turns out to be Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce, Stigmata, Tomorrow Never Dies, Ronin). He is Cardinal of all France and has aspirations to be Prime Minister; however, Marie hates him and blocks his every advance. Knowing this, Jeanne and Rétaux concoct a plan that will end up manipulating the Cardinal into believing Marie wants to reconcile the rift between them. Posing as a confidant to the Queen, Jeanne is able to gain the patronage of the Cardinal and thus some small influence in royal circles. Slowly but surely, with this influence, Jeanne begins to gain some prestige and some of the tarnish of her name begins to fade away.
Meanwhile, Queen Antoinette is very unpopular with the French citizenry; but her entourage tells her that she is simply a focal point for the unrest the people feel against the government. That is far from the truth, as the people truly hate her. They call her the foreign harlot that has married their King; they loathe her, make fun of her, and simply feel that she is completely out of touch with the people.
One day Messieurs Bohmer and Bassenge, the jewelers of the Royal Court, pay a visit to the Queen. They have finally finished their masterpiece: a necklace that is made up of diamonds with a total weight of 2800 carats! After spending many years creating the necklace and falling into debt, they present their creation to the Queen for her approval. More importantly, her approval will solidify their prestige and get them out of debt, as the monarchy will pay them for the necklace. Rumor has it, though, that the necklace was not created for the Queen but for a former mistress of the King, who has long been banished from France. Marie is fully aware of this rumor and vehemently refuses to accept the necklace. Messieurs Bohmer and Bassenge are devastated.
With Jeanne's growing prestige in the Court, the jewelers decide to visit Jeanne and ask her to use her "influence" with the Queen to get her to accept the necklace. The jewelers' request poses a delicious opportunity to further Jeanne's cause, and she eagerly accepts their appeal for help. Jeanne and Rétaux create yet another more complicated, daring, and dangerous scheme. This time, they need to convince the Cardinal that the Queen wants Rohan to acquire the necklace for her. The story is that with the angry sentiment of the populace in full force, the Queen believes it would be best to acquire such a luxurious object in as quite a manner as possible. The Cardinal is nervous about such a move, as he must guarantee the necklace, which is exceptionally expensive, even for a man of his position. However, being drunk on the prospect of gaining the position of Prime Minister in exchange for this favor for the Queen, he readily falls for Jeanne and Rétaux's lies.
All seems to be going well until the jewelers begin to show their joy around the Court. Marie does not understand how they can be happy when they are destitute and stuck with the necklace. Thus, House Minister Breteuil begins to investigate matters and quickly unravels the scheming of Jeanne and Rétaux. Soon, both truth and lies begin to trickle out to the populace; and the Queen's reputation is further soiled, as the people believe she bought the exorbitantly expensive necklace.
Immediately all of the players, including the baffled Cardinal, are brought to trial before Parliament. This is unique as it was well within the purview of the monarchy to lay summary judgment. However, the Queen wants a public trial to try and clear her name. Who will be found guilty and who will be found innocent? What punishment is fitting such a scheme? What will happen to Jeanne, Rétaux, the Cardinal, the Queen, and all of the other ancillary players in this game?
Is everyone still awake? Good, because now it's time for a quiz: in what year does l'affaire du collier de la reine occur?
The Affair of the Necklace sports a beautiful anamorphic transfer that easily ranks among the best I have seen. There is nary a flaw that I can find in the video; it is simply quite excellent: the colors are rich, deep, accurate, and vibrant; there is no edge enhancement or any artifacting; the picture is sharp, crisp, and clean with excellent depth. I must admit that there is one scene in the movie in which Cardinal Rohan is talking to Jeanne and his mystical counselor Count Cagliostro (Christopher Walken, Blast from the Past, The Prophecy, Suicide Kings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) where I detected some graininess in the background. I was surprised to see this; however, in the bonus audio commentary, it turns out that it is not graininess. In fact, the picture is simply so clear and sharp that you can see that the weather was not cooperating in the one shot, and it's actually raining in the out-of-focus background. Overall, a superb transfer that almost ranks as reference quality.
I am also very happy with the 5.1 Dolby Digital track. While not perfect, it makes excellent use of all the speakers: the surrounds create a beautiful ambience and the subwoofer is used nicely, when appropriate. As a period piece, you don't get a heavy workout of those speakers, but they are used perfectly to further the story. I do have one small quibble with the dialogue as presented in the center channel. It's hard to describe exactly, but I think that dialogue wasn't transferred perfectly. Sometimes the words feel thin and other times I get an impression that there was some over-dubbing, if there is such a possibility. It's just a minor quibble on an overall excellent track.
During my second viewing, I noticed something odd about the subtitles that I thought I'd pass on to you. I'm not sure how many of you use the subtitles, but I turn them on when listening to a commentary track. In this case, the subtitle track is the most inaccurate that I have ever come across. While the sentiment of a scene is matched, words are often omitted, hence changing the character and feel of a scene. I was somewhat dismayed to see the dialogue so "drastically" altered in a subtitle track.
Director Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride I and II, I Love Trouble, Baby Boom) definitely took a new path when deciding to make this film, as it is certainly way out of the scope of his normal fair. And, I believe that it works for him. As he readily admits, he was not all that familiar with the historical facts of the film, which thus allowed him to come at the material from a fresh perspective. He attempted to slightly modernize the tale so it didn't feel "too period" for audiences; he wanted a film that we could more easily relate to, which I certainly appreciated. The film isn't filled with 18th Century music and formal dialogue. It's just casual enough for one to be able to connect to more easily. Overall, I enjoyed Shyer's direction and, again, state that it's a shame that this film just didn't make it onto the radar last year.
As with any period piece, you're going to be surrounded by lush costumes and stunning visuals; and this is certainly the case here. I loved the cinematography and know that I must visit Prague and Salzburg one day. The few scenes that were filmed in the Palace of Versailles are stunning and add an extra layer of beauty to a film already replete with exquisite visuals.
While the material is somewhat dry—just like my description of the movie above, but sometimes history just doesn't across any other way—the acting is quite excellent. All around, the cast is superb from top billed talent like Hilary Swank, Jonathan Pryce, and Christopher Walken to character actors like Brian Cox and Joely Richardson. Everyone conveyed his or her roles superbly and I was immediately pulled into the drama. I would like to say that, while good in the film, Hilary Swank does not overly impress me. She just doesn't have that "special edge," for lack of a better way to say it; for, when I watch Christopher Walken—though exceptionally quirky in this role—he just comes alive in his role; Hilary just doesn't have that (yet?).
The DVD has a nice list of bonus features for your enjoyment. First is the audio commentary by director Shyer. I found his track to be very informative and interesting. He rarely leaves any dead air during the track and always talks about the film and the specific scenes we are watching. He gives interesting insights into the film and fascinating trivia about people, locations, et cetera It's one of the better commentaries I have heard of late.
There are two behind the scenes documentaries on the film, each running about fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, neither of them offers any substantial information on the film; they are light, fluffy pieces that aren't quite PR, but just a step above. Respectively, they are "The Making of a Scandal" and "Designing Affair." Also, there are five additional cut/expanded scenes with optional commentary by director Shyer; in total, they run about eleven minutes. Nothing spectacular is viewed in the scenes themselves; but, again, more insightful commentary from Shyer. A four minute "gag reel" that is only moderately cute is tossed in; it's a nice and welcome addition, though I just would have liked more gags. Lastly, there is a select cast and crew filmography page and the theatrical trailer (which gives away too much, as usual).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Period piece? Yuck! You expect me to sit through two hours of "thou" and "doth" and other Shakespearean drivel? If the language isn't too snobby as it is, then you want me to watch people strut around in all that pretentious clothing in those opulent surroundings? That is so unrealistic. Why would I want to waste two hours on that? Besides, we all know what happens to Marie Antoinette anyways!
If you answered 1785 during the pop quiz, then either you know your history or you've paid attention! Well done. Quite simply, I enjoyed this film and highly recommend it. The video transfer is quite excellent and the audio track is almost as impressive. If you enjoy historical or period pieces, then this is definitely something you would enjoy. Though I am not sure why, the story does feel familiar. As I said, I am not a history buff so I was not aware of this scandal before viewing the movie. However, in some form or another, I've heard this story before. But, that doesn't detract from this movie in any way.
There are no charges filed in this matter. An overlooked yet excellent movie that has been richly transferred to DVD where I hope more people will give it a spin. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Charles Shyler
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