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18th century French countess Jeanne St. Remy de Valois (Hilary Swank) whose title was stripped from her by the Royal Family during the late 18th Century fights to restore her name and regain her royal status. She enlists the help of Rétaux de Vilette (Simon Baker) to gain the trust and assistance of the ambitious Cardinal Louis de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), who is trying himself to be looked upon with favour by Marie-Antoinette (Joely Richardson). 

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Period drama is a dirty word to some, especially when set in a distant Europe and amidst the irrelevance of French aristocracy of the late 18th century. Indeed, the distributors of this film were so unsure of its commercial potential they sent it straight to DVD. Well, thank digital goodness for the quality of DVD: the film is worth a look (at least) even though it has some flaws. The flaws are not in the performances or the spectacular designs or the eclectic soundtrack. 

The flaws are inbuilt: a French historic drama peopled with English, American and Australian (Simon Baker) actors is always going to feel slightly off key. And the film begins without engaging us as powerfully as it might have. Perhaps the original opening could have helped – see director Charles Shyer’s comments on this, below.

But the strengths of the film finally overcome its weaknesses: it is perhaps best seen as a story of character, rather than history. Character as in the original meaning of the word: courage and honour and heart. Hilary Swank’s Jeanne St. Remy de Valois is far more interesting as a character than as a countess. The point about the story is not how the aristocracy behaved, but how individuals behaved. Marie Antoinette among them. And Swank just one of the talented and impressive cast who inhabit this glorious yet grotesque world.

Sure, the fact based story illuminates history – and there’s always room for that, but for me it proves a satisfying human drama as well as historical fossicking.

The 15 minute documentary included as an extra is really more suitable for one of those freebie tv slots, Making Of; it uses the on-set produced electronic press kit, but overlays too much of the film itself to be DVD user friendly. Still, it has some interesting insights. And since many of the cast and crew interviews are conducted on location, the doco looks as sumptuous as a royal palace. Indeed, the discussion about the interior shoot at Versailles is one of the highlights.

The design elements discussed in the doco are teased out into a separate self contained, and very detailed 15 minute piece on the various aspects of design – which in this film are extensive and crucial to the production. The story of the necklace itself is interesting in that the filmmakers felt the original was too crude, and designed something more refined, albeit based on the original concept. 

The 5 minute gag reel is fun, and the five additional scenes come with the all-important commentary option. (Take it.) It includes the original opening scene, which was discarded, solely on the basis of test screenings. Director Charles Shyer makes no bones about his disappointment: “that’s what happens when pet shop owners (who go to these screenings) tell you how to make movies.” He now feels the original opening would have been more artistically true to the movie.

Shyer’s commentary begins with an explanation for the opening song – Elena Morriset singing in Hungarian. He didn’t want to be so purist with the music as to make the film an academic museum piece. So a contemporary song – lyrical and sweet as it is – served well. He talks about what he wanted to achieve, what he did achieve and what he failed to achieve in the film – recognising that the film divides critics and audiences: some like it more than anything else he’s made, others like it much less. 

It is also thanks to Shyler’s commentary that we’re alerted to the Duelling Penises theatrical sequence, which is so well edited as to have passed the classification board unnoticed, he jokes. Ah, the blessings of DVD . . . 

Published September 26, 2002

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CAST: Hilary Swank, Christopher Walken, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Baker, Joely Richardson

DIRECTOR: Charles Shyer

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with director Charles Shyer; documentary on the period design of the film (Designing Affair); HBO’s First Look behind the scenes documentary; additional scenes with optional commentary; gag reel; trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: September 25, 2002

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