It was a tabloid editor’s wet dream. It had everything, Royalty, expensive jewelry, the Catholic Church, and a shady deal. The only problem? The Queen knew nothing about it. But you can just imagine the headlines. "MILLION DOLLAR NECKLACE DISAPPEARS-CHURCH HEAD CLAIMS HE GIFTED QUEEN-PALACE SOURCES DENY" or "QUEEN IN SECRET RENDEZVOUS IN PALACE GARDEN."
On the surface it sounds absolutely absurd like a bad spy movie but you can’t make this stuff up. Once again, real life is more fantastic than anything novelist could dream of. The story of the Affair of the Necklace has intrigued historians and novelists over the past two hundred years. Everyone has had a crack at it, from the English historian Thomas Carlyle to Alexandre Dumas. Several years major Hollywood film starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank was filmed and bombed (You can read a recent review of the film here. But you can just imagine what the studio memo* was like:
To: Sam Strutt, Head of Production
From: Larry Lame, Producer, Tapestry Films
Listen, I just read a script that I think the studio should pick up. It's called The Affair of the Necklace and it's juicy. Based on a true story about Marie Antoinette. Historical films are hot right now, since Gladiator picked up the Best Picture Oscar, and I think we should jump on this. It's set in pre-revolutionary war France. Yes, I know we're not happy with France right now, thanks to Bush, but this movie has it all. Intrigue, romance, royalty, it's a total chick flick. You know how women love those costume flicks. We throw in some sword fighting for the guys, and some nudity and I smell box-office! We don't even have to film it in France. Prague is dirt cheap, and the dollar is strong right now. We can bring the movie in for under $35MM.
Cast of characters:
Jeanne, Saint-Remy de Valois, Countess de la Motte – She's the heroine. Sure she's kind of a con-artist but wouldn't you be the way she grew up? (We can totally get around this by making it that the Queen uses her to buy the necklace, making her a dupe. Yeah, it's not historically accurate but who cares?)
Her ancestor was a French King Henry II and one of his mistresses Nicole Savigny. We'll show lots of scenes of her father squandering what little of the family fortune was left, before dying, and her mother, who was little more than a servant girl, abandoned her children to run off with another man. She was forced as a child to beg for money on the streets by her mother. The audience will totally sympathize with her. I hear that Hilary Swank is looking to play a role that will make her seem more womanly after that movie she made where she played a guy.
Nicolas de la Motte: Marc Antoine Nicolas de La Motte to be precise. Like Jeanne, he lived by his wits, charming rather than handsome.
Rétaux de Villete: Jeanne de la Motte de Valois’s co-conspirator and lover. He was also a common gigolo and a fellow officer of her husband in the gendarmes. Jeanne hires him to be her 'secretary.'
Louis René Édouard, cardinal de Rohan: A member of the illustrious de Rohan family, his aunt was governess to the King’s sisters. You can't tell by the portrait but apparently he was charming and handsome. He first met the Queen when he was sent to bring the her to France. He was later sent to Vienna as Ambassador from France to the court of Maria Theresa, where he proceeded to offend her and the more straight-laced court by his extravagance and roguish ways. Maria Theresa wanted him recalled, afraid that he would corrupt her son, the Emperor Joseph. I see some English actor, like Sam Neill or Alan Rickman, or that guy from Evita, Jonathan Pryce in the role.
The Queen, Marie Antoinette hates him. See, one night her father-in-law's mistress, Madame du Barry read a letter from de Rohan aloud to the King in the Dauphin’s presence. The letter described the Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother, as holding in one hand a handkerchief with which to wipe away the tears she was shedding over the woes of Poland, while in the other hand she wielded a sword to divide the country. Marie Antoinette was livid that he would dare to criticize her mother and to Madame du Barry of all people. It seems a little petty to me, but you know what rich people are like. I say we play up the sexual tension between Marie and de Rohan, so what if it's not historically accurate. We're making a film here.
We may get a little flack from the Catholic Church about the film. de Rohan was a cardinal as well as the bishop of Strasbourg, grand almoner and the abbot of St. Vaast. But he loved the ladies! He seduces the Countess in the film. Sweet! Despite his many titles and honors, he wished to part of the inner circle of the King and Queen. His ambition is to be Prime Minister. However, the Queen refused to see or speak to him. Desperate to find himself in the Queen’s good graces, he was more than susceptible when approached by the Countess de la Motte.
Count de Cagliostro: An 18th century Rasputin who preyed on the aristocracy. This was one Crazy Dude. I'm thinking of Christopher Walken for the part. He loves to play these nut jobs. He claimed to be more than three hundred years old, although he looked to be only thirty. That was because, he said, that he had found the fountain of youth. Oh, and he could make gold out of thin air. Oy vey! Cagliostro was a magician, a charlatan, and an alchemist. He peddled some kind of ancient Viagra. Get this, he was apparently born in Sicily as plain Giovanni Balsamo! No one knew where his money came from, but he seemed to have plenty of it. He met de Rohan in Strasbourg when the Cardinal was living in his castle at Saverne. Later he followed him to Paris, where he counseled him during the Affair of the Necklace, that he would be completely successful in his endeavors with the Queen. Was Cagliostro in league with the Countess? No one knows for sure. Oh, and he also has a hot young wife!
Marie Antoinette – You know the one who said, "Let them eat cake," although my assistant says that she never really said that. No matter, I'm sure the screenwriters's can squeeze it in some where.
Okay, by 1785, Marie Antoinette had been married for almost fifteen years. Brought to marry the Dauphin in 1770 when she was only 14, she was beautiful and witty, renowned for her fashion sense, the complete opposite of her shy and awkward husband. After trying to consummate her marriage for seven years, she and the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste, were finally successful. The death of Louis XV in 1775 brought the young couple to the throne. After initially being popular, Marie Antoinette suffered from the vicious gossip at the French court. Unhappy in her marriage and unused to the rigid court etiquette; the young Dauphine had, indulged in the more frivolous aspects of court life. However, once the Queen became a mother, she changed considerably. At the time of the scandal, the Queen had given birth to three children, and was soon pregnant with her fourth. We can get one of those English actresses to play the part, or maybe someone French. The role is not that big, so we should be able to get some one relatively cheap to play her.
Boehmer and Bassenge: These guys are German jewelers who had supplied Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry with many of her jewels. Boehmer was the vision guy, he wanted to create the most beautiful necklace in the world. But who could afford to pay for such a masterpiece? Why Louis XV of course, for his peasant mistress Madame du Barry. The necklace was so expensive, that the jewelers had to take lines of credit out to buy the diamonds. A row of seventeen diamonds, hanging from these were a three-wreathed festoon, and pendants enough to encircle it. The necklace cost 1,600,000 livres, a fortunate at that time.
Unfortunately Louis XV died from small pox, Madame du Barry was banished from court and Boehmer and Bassenge were stuck with the necklace. Hoping to recoup the huge amount of money, they offered the necklace to the new Queen. Although Louis XVI offered to buy it for his wife as a present, Marie Antoinette refused. Not only did she not want to wear a necklace associated with Madame du Barry, who she despised, but she was also trying to distance herself from her earlier days when she was considered to be a frivolous spendthrift. France was preparing for war against England, and Marie Antoinette declared that “We have more need of ships than of Necklaces.” Boehmer and Bassenge tried their best to sell the necklace to the other crowned heads of Europe but to no avail. They desperately need to unload this thing.
We open with Jeanne's father dying. The children are rescued by a local parish priest, and are sent to live with a rich parishioner, the Boulainvilliers. Jeanne’s mission in life from an early age was to restore her family’s fortune and the family name to glory. Louis XVI acknowledges her brother Jacques as the Baron de Valois, and awards her and her sister Marianne a pension of 800 francs each. But Jeanne wants more, right? She can't live off a measly 800 francs, she wants to live in the manner that she feels one of her illustrious name should. Her guardian tries to seduce her and her sister, Jeanne and her sister flee to a convent for a time.
Under pressure to take the veil, Jeanne and her sister leave, traveling to Bar sur Aube, to try and regain the family estates. While there she meets, Nicolas, Monsieur de la Motte, a Calvary officer. After their marriage in 1780, when Jeanne was 24, the two assumed the title of Comte and Comtesse de La Motte Valois. However, de la Motte was as poor as his wife and just as avaricious.
Jeanne resolves to petition the Queen for a more generous royal pension, figuring that she would be more sympathetic than the ministers at court. I picture scenes of poor Jeanne sitting day after day at court trying to see the Queen. Running around delivering petitions left and right and getting increasingly frustrating. However, the Queen refuses to meet with her, earning her Jeanne’s everlasting enmity. We have a great scene where Jeanne faints at court, hoping that the Queen will be moved by her plight. Instead, one of the Queen's sisters-in-law takes Jeanne under her wing for awhile under her husband tries to seduce poor Jeanne. In the meantime, poor Jeanne is being hounded by creditors. Jeanne meets the Cardinal de Rohan through her guardian, the Marquis de Boulainvilliers. He's taken with her beauty, and loans her money. They become lovers (yeah, I know, she's got like 3 guys on the horn in this film. I'm already working with the writers to make her less of a slut.)
Jeanne, her husband Nicolas and de Villette concoct a scheme to fulfill all their ambitions and embarrass the Queen at the same time. Rétaux de Villete who proves to have skills as a forger, writes letters to the comtesse ostensibly from the Queen. The tone of the letters becomes increasingly warm and the cardinal is convinced that the Queen is in love with him. Jeanne even tells the Cardinal to look for signs from the Queen acknowledging him, a nod of the head, or a slight smile. She convinces the Cardinal that she know has the ear of the King, and the Cardinal believes her, because how would he know? The Queen hardly looks at him.
In these faux letters, the ‘Queen’ states that she desires the necklace that Boehmer and Bassenge have created but doesn't dare ask the King to buy it due to the current dismal financial climate of the country. Perhaps the Cardinal can loan her the money, and then she would grant him the stipend that he was seeking. She also names Jeanne as her agent. The cardinal is eager but he wants some more reassurace from the Queen. Our girl Jeanne quickly comes up with a clever idea. A late night rendezvous is arranged so that the Cardinal can speak to the ‘Queen.’ Here's the great part. In reality a prostitute named Nicole Leguay d’Oliva is found and hired to impersonate the Queen. Rohan offers the ‘Queen’ a rose and she forgives him for his actions. See it's dark, and the 'Queen' is wearing a veil, so he doesn't really know who the heck he's talking too. Pretty sweet huh?
Jeanne also borrows large sums of money off the cardinal claiming that the money is for Marie Antoinette’s pet charities. Instead Jeanne used the money to worm her way further in at court. Rohan manages to obtain the necklace from the jewelers by showing them the forged letters from the Queen. When the necklace is safely procured, Jeanne gives it to her husband who takes it to London to sell off the stones. When the Cardinal presses Jeanne for why the Queen is not wearing the necklace, she claims that she wants to wait for a special moment. However, the Cardinal now owes the jewelers 400,000 francs, for the first installment on the payment plan. He needs that money from the Queen. Jeanne, cool as a cucumber, sells some of the diamonds to give to the Cardinal, claiming the money has come from the Queen. The Cardinal tries to renegotiate the terms with the jewelers regarding the payment, but Boehmer is not budging.
The story comes to light when the jeweler Charles Boehmer sends an invoice for the necklace to the palace which Marie Antoinette discards. Undaunted Boehmer comes to Versailles and speaks to Madame Campan, seeking payment for the necklace. He shows the Queen the forged letters allegedly signed by her and explains Cardinal de Rohan’s role in acquiring the necklace. The Queen is outraged, and demands satisfaction against this guy.
Okay, here's one of the big scenes. We have a screen shot to tell the audience that it is August 15, 1785, Assumption Day. The cardinal is arrested and brought before the King and Queen to explain himself. Rohan presents one of the letters to the King who becomes enraged that a prince could have allowed himself to be fooled. The crux of the whole thing is, get this, apparently Queen's only sign their name, and Villette signed all of the correspondance Marie Antoinette de France, which should have been a dead giveaway to Rohan. But Rohan is so desperate that he totally blanks on that.
Rohan is arrested and taken to the Bastille but he's smart enough to burn all the correspondence that he thought had come from the Queen. Jeanne was arrested three days later after burning all her papers. A short time later the other accomplices are rounded up and arrested de Villette, Cagliostro the magician, and the prostitute Nicole Leguay d’Oliva. Rétaux de Villete confesses that he had written the letters and forged the Queen’s signature.
We can have some great court room scenes here where Jeanne takes the stand on her behalf to plead her case. She gets one of her former lovers, Count Beugnot to defend her. Bam, Jeanne is found guilty and sentenced to be whipped, branded and imprisoned. The audience should totally be on her side by now. Hey, but don't worry. Even though she's to the prison at Salpêtrière, she escapes, dressed like a boy. She resurfaces in London where she wrote her memoirs. We'll close the film when a shot of her looking in the window of a book store at her memoirs.
* Okay, I totally made this memo up, but if you've seen the film, I'm not that far off, in Hollywood's depiction of The Affair of the Necklace.
The Countess actually claimed in her memoirs that the Queen used her, that she and the Queen were actually confidantes. That the plot to gain the necklace was the Queen's idea and she was just helping her out. Unfortunately for the Queen, it was too easy for the court to believe that she would be swayed by the charisma of someone like Jeanne de la Motte. Jeanne was exactly the type of person that the Queen palled around with when she first came to France, people who were only interested in advancing themselves, not real friends. The scene in the arbor with Cardinal de Rohan was straight out of Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro, a favorite play of both Jeanne and the Queen. Marie Antoinette played both the Countess of Almaviva and Rosina in productions in her theater at the Petit Trianon.
Jeanne de la Motte eventually died falling out of a hotel window, although there are rumors that she was killed by royalists. She died on August 23, 1791, two years before Marie Antoinette met her fate with the guillotine in Paris. Cardinal de Rohan survived the revolution dying in exile. Cagliostro was tried by the Inquisition. Only Nicolas de la Motte returned to Paris after the revolution. Jeanne is buried in London in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Lambeth.
The matter could have been handled quietly with little publicity but both the King and Queen insisted on a public trial. Breteuil, the chief minister, also wanted to see his rival, de Rohan brought down. Rumors flew around during the public trial that Jeanne and Marie Antoinette had been lovers, and that was why she had Jeanne be her intermediary with the Cardinal. Even though the Cardinal was stripped of his titles and banished after the trial, the damage was done. The Queen’s reputation was thoroughly destroyed as the public saw her as the guilty party. Many people believed that she had used de la Motte to avenge herself on the cardinal or that she and the Cardinal were secretly lovers and the whole Necklace affair was just a cover-up. The stress of the whole thing caused the Queen to go into premature labor several weeks early. She gave birth to her fourth child and second daughter, Sophie Helene Beatrix on July 9, 1785.
The Affair of the Necklace has often been cited as an important factor in the eventual French Revolution. While that might be stretching the truth a bit, it is true that the whole affair damaged the monarch tremendously and Marie Antoinette in particular. She was never able to shake off the image of the frivolous, pleasure loving Queen who perpetuated a fraud to further her own ends. The pamphlets and newspapers detailing salacious gossip about sexual scandals and expensive jewelry made the Queen seem out of touch to the ordinary citizenry of the country who were suffering.
The Queen's Necklace - Frances Mossiker (the best book I believe on the whole convoluted affair. She uses the actual eyewitness accounts to tell the story.)
To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette - Carolly Erickson
Marie Antoinette: The Journey - Antonia Fraser
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution - Caroline Weber