Romanticism in ‘The Affair of the Necklace’ (2001)

SPOILER WARNING: I give away some key elements of this film, so if you haven’t seen this and wish not to be spoiled, please do not read this blog entry.

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THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE (2001) paints a sympathetic portrait of 18th century con-woman Jeanne de La Motte, much to the chagrin of historical records. The plot of the story is that Jeanne, desperate to be recognized as a member of the royal Valois family, is reduced to swindling money through the purchase of an expensive diamond necklace. To further push this image of Jeanne as a woman of virtue who was led to do shifty things in order to restore the “honor” of her family, Marie Antoinette, the Queen, is depicted as an image-conscious snob.

In the film, Jeanne’s story is put into context by a narrator who also serves to persuade the viewer to her side. As he explained, Jeanne was “a woman of nobility denied.” The film takes the stance that Jeanne is a true noble whereas Northwestern University professor Sarah Maza raises the question of Jeanne’s true lineage in her essay, The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited, by stating that Jeanne, “styled herself Jeanne de Valois, claiming descent from the royal family though a bastard line.” The explanation that the film provides as to why it is so difficult for Jeanne to be recognized as having royal blood is that her father (who was killed by French officials during the prologue of the film) was anti-monarchy. It can be argued that Jeanne claimed Valois lineage to trick people into thinking that she was connected to the queen, which would then lead them to granting her favors. She aspired the life of a noble and conned her way to it.

As the story progresses, the issue of the diamond necklace arose. Both the film and Maza’s essay offer different reasons as to why Marie Antoinette did not want the necklace. Marie, according to Maza, felt that there were more important things to spend money on rather than a necklace. “We need ships, not necklaces,” Marie is quoted as having said. In the film, Marie rejected the necklace because it had been styled for Madame du Barry, the disgraced former mistress of Louis XV. It is interesting to note that for the film, the actress chosen to play Marie Antoinette had a snooty air about her, and large eyes which she would later play up to give off the “crazy eyes” look, something that is used in modern times to vilify women in politics. In most of the Marie Antoinette scenes, she carries a dog which is considered snobby, and thinks rather highly of herself. In one of the earlier scenes, Jeanne faints after seeing Marie in person and Marie laughs, “There’s no need to worship at my feet.”

The eyes have it…

Jeanne was able to obtain the necklace through Cardinal Louis de Rohan, whose political aspirations made him vulnerable to not only Jeanne, but also another con named Cagliostro. Rohan wanted to win the favor of the queen in order to secure the position of prime minister. Jeanne tricked him into thinking that she had influence over the queen, and urged him to buy the necklace. After Rohan bought the necklace, he handed it over to Jeanne thinking that she was going to give it to the queen. Instead, Jeanne cut-up the necklace and used the diamonds to create other pieces which she sold. The narrator of AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE steps in right after to remind the viewer that Jeanne is of good character by asking, “Who does not aspire to take back what was taken from them?” as Jeanne is shown entering her “family” home that she purchased with her jewelry profits.

The diamond necklace scheme began to fall apart when the queen received a letter from the jewelers who created the necklace, thanking her for the purchase. Maza argued that Marie had no connections to the sale of the necklace, but the narrator implies that she does by saying that she was “at times, conveniently naïve.”
Towards the end of the film, Jeanne finally gets her wish of speaking to Marie Antoinette, who asks for the meeting in secret to find out why Jeanne has destroyed her. Jeanne fails to take responsibility of her actions, she instead claims that it was the apathy shown for peasants among the monarchy that led her to such actions. “You weakened yourselves long before a diamond necklace became an issue,” she told Marie.

One flaw that THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE has is that it fails to explain why the acquittals of both Rohan and Cagliostro matter so much to Marie Antoinette, and how this diamond necklace affair led her on her path to the guillotine. During the French ancien regime, women were considered inferior to men and any woman who “feminized” men by holding power over them were considered evil. Although Cagliostro and Jeanne de La Motte could be considered on equal terms, Jeanne was convicted of her crimes, her gender making her the more dangerous of the two. Since Marie Antoinette was a woman and had become so hated among the people, it could be argued that the court did not take seriously any crimes against her. Rohan’s acquittal led the public to believe that extravagant purchases were well within the character of Marie Antoinette, so his involvement in the diamond necklace scheme should not be treated seriously. She had lost in the court of public opinion, and this affair is what kick-started the propaganda that sent Marie out of Versailles, into prison, and ultimately to the guillotine.

Sources:
Maza, Sarah. “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785-1786): The Case of the Missing Queen.” Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. Great Britain, 2003

The Affair of the Necklace. Dir. Charles Shyer, Warner Bros. 2001. 

Link of Interest
Girls Gone Mad: The Wild-Eyed Lunacy of Bachman, Palin, Pelosi, Clinton…etc. ~ The “crazy eyes” thing explained.

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