THE OTTOMAN LOVE AFFAIR
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This film illuminates and reinvents a real-life story enshrined in a Fabergé jewelled work of art. It gives modern creative expression to the poignant tale of a secret love affair charted through a series of custom-made gold cigarette cases, including one in particular that features an exquisite gem-set map of Egypt’s Valley of the Nile, embodying dreams of adventure and romance. This is the cigarette case that inspired the script for our film, The Ottoman Love Affair. The cases were commissioned as New Year gifts by the Belle Époque society beauty Princess Cécile Murat for her secret lover Charles-Antoine Luzarche d’ Azay (1872-1962) – an officer in the French army and a secret agent, whose dangerous mission was tracked by the map on the cigarette case.  Every jewel has a story to tell . . .

Our modern version of this long ago romance was filmed in London’s Eltham Palace, a 14th century royal residence that was home to the young Henry VIII. Restored in the 1930s by an eccentric, aesthetically inclined couple, Virginia and Stephen Courtauld transformed dark, dilapidated medieval magnificence into a Hollywood-style Art Déco extravaganza filled with furniture, carpets and interior architecture of cutting-edge modernist design. The combination of old and new echoes Peter Carl Fabergé’s inimitable style, with the palace’s superb Art Deco interiors hinting at the master’s instinctive anticipation of the modernism that was hovering in the wings during Russia’s great Silver Age. 

Our star is the lovelorn Princess for whom money and status can never bring happiness, played here by Joana Preiss, the French actress and muse of Karl Lagerfeld.  With a script by Jo Forel, the film was directed by Marcus Werner Hed and shot in atmospheric black and white to appropriately Post-Impressionist style music composed by Simone Spagnolo and Jan Regulski. The poignant tones of piano and violin evoke the Princess’s tormented longing and nostalgia.

In our film, decades melt into one romantic moment – just like Cécile’s memories of the love affair that stretched from the opening years of the 20th century through the ‘20s and ‘30s to the time of her death in 1960. The setting, medieval and modernist, is complemented by the authentic costumes true to the Belle Époque (when the love affair began): Princess Cécile’s formal corseted suit, evokes how she was depicted by society painter Boldini; and her 1920s-style handmade silk shift, by Mir Fabergé's couturier Alexis Barrell, becomes a symbol of her much-longed for freedom; her jewellery comprises striking and meaningful pieces from the contemporary High Jewellery collection Les Fabuleuses de Fabergé. In her first memory, Cécile’s hand is adorned with a carved stone scarab ring – references to Egypt are woven through the film, alluding to her lover’s dangerous assignment in North Africa, to the Orientalism that seeped into the first decade of the century, and to the Egyptian revival that coloured 1920s decorative arts.

In another reminiscence, Cécile, in a negligee, wears the Fabergé Ida necklace, which is composed of huge diamond-encrusted, interlinked circles like the unbreakable bonds of love. The Nomade bracelet, with its ethnic flavour, and organic, random pavé work, tells of the wild gypsy in Cécile’s heart and of her wish to share the Ottoman journey with her lover. She would happily surrender her life of luxury and privilege for nomadic freedom, the freedom to live and love as she wished. The luscious Peony ring, worn with her formal Belle Époque costume, exudes the sensuality she has to hide, and acts as a symbol of her blossoming love while also complementing the springtime gardens of Eltham Palace. 

As Cécile longs for her handsome officer, she sits on her bed and looks at the gold cigarette case, the latest of the New Year’s gifts she sends to her absent lover. This original Fabergé cigarette case – rectangular, yellow gold with a cabochon ruby clasp, and made around 1910 – was discovered by Mir Fabergé’s Editor Claire Fouché at London antique jeweller and Fabergé specialist Bentley & Skinner. The gold is textured using the traditional Russian Samorodok technique, which creates a crumpled, rugged surface – and reminding Cécile of the sand in the desert.  The Princess was renowned at Fabergé as a great collector and connoisseur who was obsessed with craftsmanship and minute details –  a demanding and mercurial client.  The quality, the superb detail, and tactility of this cigarette case, by Fabergé workmaster Henrik Wigstrom from St Petersburg, seems to have satisfied her discerning tastes.

The Princess composes a letter, which she knows she can never send, telling of the closure of Luzarche d’Azay’s favourite restaurant in the rue de Monceau in Paris where she lives. This form of touching intimacy she longs to share with the man she loves – but she knows it can never be. Instead the superbly crafted Fabergé cigarette case, the rich sand textured gold symbolising purity, constancy and eternity, becomes a jewelled messenger for her love and longing. She hopes her gift of love will light up his face.

The Cigarette Cases of Charles-Antoine Luzarche d’Azay

Fabergé expert, Dr Géza von Habsburg, provides a historical backdrop of the original story for the Ottoman Love Affair and explains the intrinsic value of the cigarette case.

When bestowed by the tsars of Russia, Fabergé’s snuff-boxes and cigarette-cases were the ideal diplomatic gift. Between members of royal families, they were regularly given at many occasions: Christmas, Easter, birth- or name-days, baptisms – and often accompanied by little pencilled notes.

Less well-known is how they were used to convey secret messages of illicit affection. Both the tsar and the Russian grand dukes often made use of presenting little (or sometimes very valuable) jewels or objects to their paramours. The best recorded examples are those of Elisabeth Balletta, the well-known actress, who received numerous exceptionally beautiful objects by Fabergé from her lover the Grand Duke Aleksei Aleksandrovich. The popular and beautiful dancer Matilde Kschessinska, the lover of several grand dukes, including the Tsarevich Nicholas, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich and Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, whom she later married, amassed a major collection of objects and jewels by Fabergé.

Most recently, another love affair documented by Fabergé gifts has come to light. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris owns a collection of 28 cigarette-cases, 18 by Fabergé,  that was the property of Charles-Antoine Luzarche d’Azay (1872-1962). He was an officer of the French army, a secret agent, a womaniser and a keen huntsman, and his collection is testimony to a touching, discreetly led love affair conducted with the beautiful, unhappily married socialite Princess Cécile Murat. (She was glamorously portrayed by Boldini in 1910 at the height of their affair.)

Most of the cigarette cases, the first of which was commissioned by the princess from Fabergé around 1900, were New Year’s presents. Many of them contain cryptic messages for lovers’ eyes only: Arabic inscriptions spelling “Cecile”; a moon sickle in lieu of the donor’s initial; the entwined initials “C” for Cecile and Charles; hidden miniature portraits of the princess; entwined serpents symbolising eternal love; maps revealing Charles’s progress down the Nile (or were they the places of their trysts?); and commemorating his military successes. It is known that Fabergé was very attentive to the princess’s specific orders when she commissioned each box, meticulously supervising every detail.