Napoleon (2002)

“Tonight I have a woman to love, and tomorrow I have to take Italy back from Austria.”

The extremely engaging French television miniseries Napoleon charts the rise and fall of Napoleon’s turbulent career from his days as an obscure French General to his last years on St. Helena. This sweeping epic adaptation covers Napoleon’s personal and public life, his triumphs and his defeats. And while the personal scenes deliver some of the cheesiest lines, I’ve heard in ages, this 6-hour production was highly entertaining.

The film begins with Napoleon (Christian Clavier) meeting Josephine (Isabella Rosellini), and then follows his meteorical climb to the French throne. While he was intelligent enough not to assume the title of “king,” the film highlights Napoleon’s ambitious thirst for power as he places various siblings from his tight-knit family on the thrones of Europe. There’s one magnificent scene when Napoleon and Josephine enter the Tuileries for the first time. While Josephine expresses distress at the prospect of living in the palace, Napoleon can’t wait to move in. There’s a savage irony here. The French royals were executed, but they’ve merely been replaced. As fate would have it, Napoleon may achieve some victories for France, but there are also the horrendous mistakes of Egypt and Russia, and of course, the armies of many countries paid with blood for his ego.

Napoleon is portrayed as a horribly flawed human being–a man who is not content to sit and rule. He’s comfortable only at war, and the lives of hundreds of thousands are thrown away as the price of his megalomaniacal ambition. Increasingly delusional and unwilling to listen to his wisest advisors, Napoleon plunges his armies into the end game. He’s seen as an intense person, and many scenes depict him applying his charisma and veering away from a potentially disastrous situation.

Isabella Rosellini plays a touching role as Josephine–a woman who’s all too aware of the encroachments of age. John Malkovich is marvelous as Tallyrand, and Gerard Depardieu plays the minister of police. Most of the worst lines take place in the highly personal scenes between Napoleon and various women in his inner circle: “Gently sire, come to me as a man–not as a conqueror,” “He would never have forced you, he’s a marquis,” and “Impetuous, passionate, running towards me like a mad thing.” Well you get the picture.

The bloody scenes of battle are contrasted with scenes of gorgeous costumes, pomp and ceremony and sumptuous wealth. While an amazing amount of events are packed into these 6 hours, some things were reduced and eliminated. I can’t, for example, remember one reference to Wellington–although the mention of the English draws many a sneer from Napoleon. I bought the six-hour version, a 4 disc set from Canada, and enjoyed every minute. If you are interested in Napoleon, or this period, I recommend it highly. Directed by Yves Simoneau.

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Filed under France, Gerard Depardieu, Period Piece

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