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French for Dummies 

Hilary does Versailles

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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If nothing else, Charles Shyer‘s first excursion into costume drama offers another shining example of Hollywood’s unshakable conviction that history is ineluctably British, even when it‘s demonstrably French. Though The Affair of the Necklace is set in pre-Revolutionary Versailles, it fairly teems with BBC diction, including Hilary Swank’s. As Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a blue-blooded temptress at the court of Louis XVI, Swank certainly looks the part -- tres Fanny Ardant in erect bearing, haughty cheekbones and liquid dark eyes. Until, that is, she opens her mouth and a flood of Sloane Square enunciation pours out, laced with some occasional neo-Shakespearean declaiming that must be screenwriter John Sweet‘s idea of period speech. “Look ho!” Jeanne cries gamely when a potential enemy heaves into view.

Despite the fact that most of its cast is English or desperately trying to be, The Affair of the Necklace is an all too free interpretation of a bona fide slice of French history, when some shenanigans engineered by a dispossessed countess scamming to regain her place at court helped speed the fall from grace of Marie Antoinette, and thus, some historians say, brought the French aristocracy to its knees. Orphaned and disinherited as a child when her liberal-minded family fell out of favor with the king, de la Motte-Valois showed up at Versailles determined to do whatever it took to regain her noble heritage. Ignored by the queen, she manipulated a bunch of highly placed shady types in a scheme to get her hands on a diamond-studded necklace, originally offered to and rejected by Marie Antoinette, that would enable Jeanne to buy back her stolen rank.

On the evidence of what she got up to, which included not only framing the hapless queen (already in bad odor with her humble subjects for overspending and indifference to their misery) and France’s highest-ranking prelate, but engaging in an opportunistic menage a trois with her husband and the lover who inducted her into the winning ways of the court, one has to conclude that in real life de la Motte-Valois was a nasty piece of work and a ruthless, conniving fortune hunter to boot. How else could she have flourished in the nest of vipers that was the French court in its dying days? Either way, she ought to be a juicy subject for a movie, never mind the role of a lifetime for Swank, whose career may already be forever cursed by having been there and done that in Boys Don‘t Cry. Shyer, however, wants from Swank not the con-artist swagger of Brandon Teena, but the pathos of Teena Brandon. In his version of things, Jeanne’s first order of business is to pass the great American likability test. Thus we are firmly instructed that her plotting stems not from a craving for wealth and status, but from her yearning to retrieve the lost honor of her family. Just as her association with the court rogue, played by the delectable Australian hunk Simon Baker, is cemented by a mutual desire to compensate for being abandoned in childhood.

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In other words, Jeanne is no fun at all. This is no fault of Swank, who‘s caught in the overall confusion of a movie crippled by its ambitions to be both caper and heartfelt melodrama, to say nothing of a cautionary tale about the politics of celebrity in our own culture. She’s not alone: As Cardinal Rohan, the priest and legendary debaucher who colludes with Jeanne in order to heal an old rift with the queen, the excellent Jonathan Pryce seems unsure whether to play it straight or cut up. Adrien Brody, as Jeanne‘s ne’er-do-well husband, appears similarly hobbled, while Christopher Walken, as a fraudulent psychic in a Svengali mustache who gets in on the scam, looks as though he just wandered in from the set of The Lord of the Rings. As to Joely Richardson‘s Marie Antoinette, she’s a regular time traveler, whose tinkling rendering of “Plaisir d‘Amour” is followed by the elegantly expressed opinion that “Shit will rain upon us in biblical amounts.” Later she shows up in sunglasses, before sobering up just in time to bow out under the guillotine.

If The Affair of the Necklace’s immediate aesthetic model is Masterpiece Theatre lightly flavored with Monty Python, its hermeneutics are strenuously contempo-American -- full of life lessons and unable to read the past as anything but a finger wagging at the present. More Monica Lewinsky than Gennifer Flowers, Jeanne is a little-girl-lost thinly disguised as a scheming minx, who learns in the school of hard knocks that in the end, love matters more than a fancy address or the political casting couch. Still, the woman shows market savvy. When all seems lost, she heads for London to read from her memoirs. To judge by this movie, her audiences could hardly have found them racy. But I‘m sure they dug the accent.

Had Robert Forster been born a generation earlier than he was, he’d have spent his acting life doing the strong, silent thing on a horse. As it is, Forster got off to a rollicking start in the ‘60s playing hardened types in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Haskell Wexler‘s Medium Cool, after which his career slid into minor television work until his lifelong fan Quentin Tarantino saw the Gary Cooper in him and cast him as the decent, monosyllabic bail bondsman who falls for Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. That movie didn’t do for Forster what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta -- for which I hope Forster‘s grateful -- but it did get him busy in movies again, for which we should be grateful.

Now in his 60s, Forster has tempered his disciplined, laconic austerity with a hint of a soft interior, which makes him just the person to play Eddie Miller, the aging salesman at the center of Daniel M. Cohen’s appealing Diamond Men, who, did he but know it, is in dire need of a little loosening up. Things are not going well for Eddie. His beloved wife has died of cancer, and after his recent heart attack the corporate entity that took over his company refuses to insure him to go on the road with the line of high-end diamonds he‘s been successfully selling in small Pennsylvania towns for years. Worse, the only way he can hold on to his job is by training his replacement, Bobby (Donnie Wahlberg), a young blowhard in a bad tie whose work experience to date -- stacking vending machines -- doesn’t prevent him from assuming he knows it all. Bobby‘s cloddish impetuousness drives the habit-bound Eddie up the wall, while Eddie’s methodical routines make Bobby crazy.

What follows is no surprise: Mutual irritation will give way to an exchange of skills and the growth of a friendship that transcends temperament and generation. This is a good deal less boring than it sounds. Cohen comes from several generations of Pennsylvania diamond men; Eddie is loosely based on his late father, and the movie is warmed by a fine sense of place and the lovingly elaborated detail of the salesman‘s life. Still, Cohen has cannily avoided falling into the trap of reverent good taste that often reduces small movies of this kind to pap. Diamond Men has its raucous side, notably when Bobby tries to set Eddie up with a woman at an Altoona massage parlor run by an old friend (Jasmine Guy). But its quiet, solid center is Forster’s Eddie, a man who can keep his cool under pressure and, with the merest twitch of a facial muscle, reveal a capacity for change -- not necessarily the kind you‘d expect -- that has lain fallow for far too long.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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