The Affair of the Necklace (2001)
An 'Affair' to Forget
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Occasionally we run into roadblocks. After all, we're only human. Last week I interviewed the director Charles Shyer and the actress Hilary Swank, who were in town to talk about their new film The Affair of the Necklace. I did not like the film, but I learned long ago not to mention this to the filmmakers if you want to get them to say anything to you.
But these two broke my heart. I found out that The Affair of the Necklace was a true labor of love, one for which everyone waived their salaries just to get it made. And they were just so darn nice and enthusiastic about the film. I wished I had something equally nice to say about their work and I found it very difficult to go back and write the bad review I originally intended.
However, I have a job to do. And if I sent moviegoers out to see The Affair of the Necklace, I just couldn't live with myself.
Based on a true story, The Affair of the Necklace, follows the adventures of Jeanne de la Motte Valois (Swank) as she tries to reclaim her royal title, denied to her after her parents' death in the French revolution. She tries to appeal to Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) but keeps fainting in her presence. Other attempts to authenticate her family name are likewise rebuked.
Soon she meets Retaux de Villette (Simon Baker), a rogue and gigolo who knows everyone's dirty secrets. Through him, Jeanne finds the will to pull a huge swindle involving Cardinal Louis de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), Marie Antoinette and a 2,800-carat diamond necklace.
Meanwhile, her estranged husband Nicolas De La Motte (Adrien Brody) shows up and a soothsayer, Count Cagliostro (Christopher Walken), helps out.
The problems begin with first-timer John Sweet's screenplay. According to legend, not all the facts in the Jeanne de la Motte Valois case of the late 1700s were recorded for posterity, so it's up to writers to fill in the holes. Unfortunately, Sweet creates a bunch of new holes for himself.
The Retaux de Villette character, for example, becomes wallpaper about a third of the way through the film after his usefulness is worn out. The film hints that he's gay, but he suddenly jumps into bed with Jeanne before the film abandons him altogether. Jeanne's husband Nicolas serves no discernable purpose other than to eat and flirt with young ladies. And Christopher Walken -- just by being himself -- injects unintentional humor into his scenes. (These turn out to be the most refreshing in the film.)
A confusing passage has Jeanne returning to her family home for apparently the first time in years. This beautiful, big house is (for some reason) just standing empty somewhere in the French countryside. What stopped her from visiting it before and what causes her to be able to visit it now? And why are we even here? Isn't her goal to steal the diamond necklace? What does her family home have to do with anything?
The next problem comes from director Shyer. Though I can vouch that he's a very nice guy and awfully funny, this is his first attempt at a dramatic film and also the first time he did not write the screenplay himself. He succeeds when he attempts to throw humor into the mix, but the dramatic scenes flail and shriek about with no restraint. Angel music hums on the soundtrack as characters wrench their hair out in anguish. The film does not offer any middle ground or quiet moments where we can just breathe.
The good news is that Swank shines in her first starring role following her Boys Don't Cry Oscar win. In fact, despite flaws in the writing and characters winking in and out of the story, all the actors are quite good. The reason for this is that The Affair of the Necklace is one of those admirable efforts (like Pulp Fiction) done on a low budget for which the actors and crew gave up their regular salaries for union scale. That only happens when real passion exists.
So perhaps costume movie fans may find some hint of life in The Affair of the Necklace that's generally lacking in the musty Merchant-Ivory flicks. But it's still far too clunky to light my fire.