Napoleon (2002)


One of the most infamous figures in foreign history was Napoleon Bonaparte, the French dictator who came to power through successful war victories and his influence among the people. A&E, who is known for their epics, brings us an enthralling look into the personal life, public battles, and empathetic struggles behind the infamous name. In doing so, they make Bonaparte a little more forgivable for his actions and help us understand how such a little man could pack such a mighty political wallop.


The story begins on the island of his confinement after Bonaparte's expulsion from France by his British enemies. The small man of large stature refuses admission to any of English alliance and keeps much to himself in his shame. Fading into history, we are introduced to a newly-restored Paris. The monarchy has come to an end, replaced by the People's Republic of France. The country has been brought to near bankruptcy by the costly and systematic execution of former public officials, rioting in the streets, and the escaped aristocracy. Napoleon Bonaparte (Christian Clavier) is a little-known figure within the Republic, a man whose only desire is to marry the beautiful Josephine (Isabella Rossellini), the mother of two nearly-grown children and a woman of romantic reputation.


His mother is adversely against the marriage, advising it would be imprudent of him to link their noble family blood with "such a woman." But Bonaparte is resolved, and after a successful ambush and slaughter of revolting peasants in the city square, is appointed to a higher military position and able to marry. From here the story progresses into war, as he is called to secure the borders of France and strengthen their military presence. This requires his departure from home over long periods of time, in which he fears his wife will go astray. Her letters do not come with as much passion or urgency as he would have hoped. His unannounced return finds a former lover flying from the house; but Josephine persuades him all is well and she is merely trying to pursue his political agenda.


Pressures are coming from all sides, particularly toward his wife. Into his confidence are taken Joseph Fouché (Gérard Depardieu), the current prefect of police, whose loyalty is demanded rather than invited. His brutality and cold-hearted manner of dealing with infidels proves him a heartless member of Bonaparte's rising team of politicians, but also gives way to some excellent insights into Parisian life... and the many plots undertaken by former Loyalists to restore the monarchy to the throne. Also with a hand in the batter is Talleyrand (an ever-droll John Malkovich), a cripple with a criminal mind for detail and a great deal of influence among the upper class. This propagandist, as well as many other voices of reason, encourage Bonaparte to divorce Josephine and marry someone who might produce him with an heir.


For a time he remains resolute and faithful to his wife, but time and history will form the makings of a much greater, more domineering and powerful man than the general whose expertise make such a dynamic example of military strategy on the battlefield. While being entertaining, A&E's adaptation of the classic novel by Max Gallo does incredible justice to the times, workings, and life of one of history's most fascinating characters. The beady-eyed Christian Clavier was born to play the role; his Bonaparte is both interesting, empathetic, and dislikable whether he's courting Josephine, dealing in cold blood with military threats, or leading his armies on to victory, he never fails to maintain the facade that he is Napoleon. The rest of the cast triumph or fall based on individuality, but his strength carries the production through from beginning to end.

Anyone with even a remote knowledge of Bonaparte will know the film has two main hinges: his romantic and battle pursuits, therefore an equal amount of seduction and violence is expected. A&E delivers but with far more restraint than I originally anticipated. The battles are all bloody, stretching their TV rating as far as humanely possible with spurts of blood and slow-action shots. Carnage lies in the streets after a bomb goes off, killing passerby and dismembering a cart pulled by a horse. (Nothing gory lingers on screen.) In a particularly jarring early sequence, Bonaparte orders his men to fire on revolutionists, slaughtering them in the town square with ruthless ambition until none are left alive. Things get hideous when his armies are forced out of Russia due to a bitter winter -- the camera lingers on frostbitten arms, legs, and noses.


In the first episode sexual content is kept to a minimum but does exist through dialogue. Women chuckle over the state of a man's pants, make flirtatious remarks about swimming in the nude, and entertain passionate letters (the contents of which we never hear). Intense kissing intrudes on many occasions, along with dialogue about "making love," producing heirs, and other sexually-related remarks. In the second disk, however, the story has progressed into Bonaparte's years of infidelity. Fortunately we never see anything overly graphic but are forced to endure his pursuit of young women. Numerous times we see him kissing women other than his wife, pulling at their corset strings, or curled up in the arms of a young beauty. It's implied a married countess (no more than twenty) becomes his mistress after being convinced he will do something for her homeland of Poland in return. On a minor note, the costuming for the women is also very immodest. The low necklines are nothing worse than you would see in an Austen adaptation, but the filmmakers unusually chose to make the garments very loose on the actresses, which results in more dangerous plunges. There is also some mild language and a scene in which the camera lingers indefinitely on a very nude baby boy.


I was surprised, considering the nature of some of A&E's equally controversial conquests that they kept it as modest as they did, but still Bonaparte's illicit sexual affairs and the nature of some of the violence will deter many families, including mine, from viewing this feature intact. For older viewers prepared to endure a little scandal in a historical context, Napoleon will prove a fascinating glimpse into one of the greatest dictators of the age.

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