The Affair of the Necklace (review)

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Un Petit Fromage

Don’t let the limited release and the Oscar cachet of its star fool you. The Affair of the Necklace has costume-drama snob appeal in spades, ’tis true, but this is pure bodice-ripper romance, done up right. If it were a book — and it was, actually: the film is based on the memoirs of its real-life heroine — it would surely sport a hilariously salacious cover, one you’d try to hide if you were reading it on the subway. But it’d be an un-put-downable book. A guilty pleasure? Oh, yeah. But all the more pleasurable for it.
Think The Princess Bride‘s cheeky humor meets Shakespeare in Love‘s aristocratic hanky-panky, with just a self-conscious smidgen of Braveheart‘s quest for honor thrown in for Academy-baiting good measure. This rollicking tale of intrigue and scandal in the court of Marie Antoinette has it all: sex, violence, conspiracy, lust, gossip, forgery, orgies, swordfighting, corruption, prognostication, beheading, actual bodice ripping, and revolting peasants. Hilary Swank (The Gift) goes as far as she can in the opposite direction of her gender-bending debut in Boys Don’t Cry as Comtesse Jeanne de la Motte Valois, a French noblewoman stripped of her family’s name and lands — her father was too outspoken a supporter of the common folk, too strong a critic of the monarchy — and determined to get them back by any means necessary. A countess by her marriage of convenience to the absent ne’er-do-well Count Nicholas de la Motte (the wonderfully slippery Adrien Brody: Oxygen, The Thin Red Line), she has title enough to gain entrance to the court at Versailles but not to get the queen’s personal attention.

Enter the delicious rogue and gigolo Retaux de Villete (the delicious Simon Baker: Red Planet, Ride with the Devil), who finds her and her decidedly unboyish décolletage intriguing. As smart and resourceful as she is, she’s a bit naive about the machinations and politics of courtly life, and he becomes her willing and necessary coconspirator in a scheme to get her what she wants, one that includes the lecherous Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce: Ronin), who’s straight out of a Monty Python skit (intentionally so? I’m not so sure); Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson: The Patriot, 101 Dalmatians), who wears blue-tinted sunglasses and predicts that “shit will rain down on” the monarchy “in biblical proportions”; and the mesmerist Count Cagliostro, who, as played by the incomparable Christopher Walken (The Opportunists, Sleepy Hollow), looks like Nosferatu meets Trotsky and steals every damn scene he’s in. Oh, and there’s a fraud involving a huge, gaudy diamond necklace at the center of it all, as the title implies.

But the important question is: The handsome and lonely gigolo, the beautiful and lonely countess… do they get it on? Yup. Director Charles Shyer and screenwriter John Sweet don’t let the film get as dirty as it should, though, particularly ignoring the fact that one of the tastiest tidbits of the scandal at the time was the menage à trois that developed when the Count — Jeanne’s husband, recall — returned from abroad and joined his wife and her lover in their plot. Still, there’s probably more male nudity onscreen here than female, so I really shouldn’t complain.

But I will. The film is sumptuously lavish in its gorgeous design, but its characters themselves never reach the level of decadence you’d expect of them — Sweet tries too hard to make us like Jeanne, constantly reminding us that her overriding motive is the restoration of her family’s honor; she’d have been so much more fun if she was simply bad without a tacked-on moral justification. Americans can be so prudish, non?

Is L’Affaire du Collier — the French translation sounds so much juicier — a Hollywood bastardization of European history? You bet. Could it have been truly wicked instead of merely pretending at naughtiness? Of course. Do all the French characters speak with Masterpiece Theater English accents? Mais oui! But… oh, this is just too cheesily luscious a film for me to care much.

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