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The Affair of the Necklace that Led to the Fall of the French Monarchy



Hilary Swank in "The Affair of the Necklace" (2001)
Hilary Swank in "The Affair of the Necklace" (2001) | Image credit: Warner Bros.

In 1772, Louis XV of France asked Parisian jewelers Boehmer and Bassenge to create a diamond necklace that was incomparable in magnificence. It was going to be a gift to his maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress), Madame du Barry.

It took the jewelers six years to complete the project and, by that time, Louis XV had died, his grandson Louis XVI was king, Marie Antoinette was queen and Madame du Barry had been banished from court.

Desperate to recover the money they had invested in the necklace, Boehmer and Bassenge attempted to sell it to Marie Antoinette. The price was 2,000,000 livres (around USD15 million today). The queen refused.

That’s not fiction. That is history. And it is that part of French history that the 2001 film The Affair of the Necklace sought to recreate with focus on the people who ran a scam that led, in part, to the end of the French monarchy and the execution by guillotine of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois (Hillary Swank), daughter of an impoverished minor aristocrat, has been trying to get an audience with Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) to seek her help in reclaiming her family’s estate which had been confiscated by the Royal Crown after her father was accused of treason.

Hanging around in Court one day, she met a gigolo, Rétaux de Villette (Simon Baker), who knew his way around the Court and who was also a master forger. She also met Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) whom Marie Antoinette despised.

Desperate for income to allow her to live in style, Jeanne and Rétaux devised a plan to extort money from Cardinal de Rohan by making him believe that Jeanne had enough influence on the queen to put him in her good graces. It took some time and a lot of convincing but through a series of forged letters purportedly written to him by the Queen, in time, the Cardinal became convinced that his dream to become Prime Minister could become true if, through Jeanne, the Queen would finally look at him with kinder eyes.

Jeanne’s supposed influence on the Queen eventually reached the ears of Boehmer and Bassenge who were on the brink of bankruptcy. They asked Jeanne to intercede and offered her a generous commission if the Queen finally agreed to buy the necklace. And the real scam began.

Jeanne told Cardinal de Rohan that the Queen wanted to buy the necklace but only in secret for fear of public backlash. Could the cardinal advance the payment and she would pay him on the Feast of the Assumption? Cardinal de Rohan agreed, the necklace was handed to Rétaux who was supposed to deliver it to the Queen.

But the necklace never reached the Queen.

Close-up of the replica of the 2,800-carat diamond necklace by Boehmer and Bassenge in "the Affair of the Necklace" (2001)
Close-up of the replica of the 2,800-carat diamond necklace by Boehmer and Bassenge in “the Affair of the Necklace” (2001)

The stones were sold, piece by piece, by Jeanne’s husband Nicholas (Adrien Brody). From the proceeds, Jeanne bought back the title to her family’s estate.

They got caught eventually and the scam was exposed. Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, the public believed that she was part of the scheme. Because the Queen wanted public vindication, instead of letting the King pass judgment on the accused, she pushed for a trial in open Parliament. Cardinal de Rohan was acquitted. Rétaux de Villette was found guilty and banished from France. Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois was found guilty and sentenced to be whipped, branded and imprisoned for her rest of her life. She, however, managed to escape to London where she published her memoirs.

In the film, it appears that Marie Antoinette was executed before Jeanne published her memoirs. That isn’t the case. The publication of the memoirs came first and Jeanne died from a fall two years before Marie Antoinette was executed.

But that is not the only inconsistency between the film and historical accounts.

Jeanne’s family did not lose its estate because her father was accused of treason. They were very poor, the father was a drunk and deeply in debt. He sold his family estate and the family moved to Paris where they lived in poverty. Even Jeanne’s memoirs do not mention her father’s supposedly progressive politics, as the film claims.

According to historical accounts, Jeanne became the lover of Cardinal de Rohan and it was in that capacity that she was able to wield so much influence over him. At the same time, she still had a husband and Rétaux de Villette was also her lover.

Why Jeanne’s character should be singled out as the glaring historical inaccuracy in the film, and why she was painted as a “victim” of the monarchy, is mind-boggling. The film might have been more enjoyable if Jeanne was portrayed as she really was — a social climber with no scruples about where and how she acquired money.