This lavish production of "Napoleon", which cost French State TV and others $40 million, is everything a biopic should not be. Each historical character is given long historical tracts to mouth as best s/he can, of the "and now I've vanquished Prussia, I shall conquer Poland" variety (Christian Clavier as Napoleon), to which the Emperor's semi-faithful Foreign Minister Talleyrand (John Malkovich) answers "I understand Polish women are very beautiful, Sire." Then, just to ensure we get the hint, Police Minister Fouché (Gérard Depardieu) reprises about the same line to about-to-be-cuckolded Empress Josephine (Isabella Rossellini). "Your Majesty, I advise you not to go to Poland." Etc., etc.; Greta Garbo movies had better dialogue and far better historical savvy.
This mammoth (4 90-minutes eps, for a total runtime of 6 hours) mini-series is, however, utterly lovely to look at. Guy Dufaux's cinematography is sensitive and beautifully-lit, as effective in intimate scenes between Napoleon and Josephine as in great battle scenes. Shot in the castles and palaces of Eastern Europe, or in Morocco (standing in unconvincingly for Egypt, with the odd CGI-ed Pyramid thrown in), the entire production achieves the kind of Biennale des Antiquaires look no set decorator could afford. Clothes, uniforms, carriages all contribute to a splendid museum experience.
But it's not enough. A talented comic in farces like "Les Visiteurs", Christian Clavier is hopelessly miscast as Napoleon, lacking the drive and intensity that mesmerized all contemporaries. He walks dutifully through the part, eliciting no sentiment whatsoever. You can't believe Clavier could write a love-letter to Josephine, let alone the entire French Legal Code. His family of Corsican upstarts has been gentrified to the point of utter boredom, with Anouk Aimée trying to sound hard as Madame Mère Letizia Buonaparte, and looking merely exhausted. Equally, Isabella Rossellini has great charm, but none of the brittle elegance expected of Josephine. She performs in slightly accented French, which is more than can be said for Malkovich, who's obviously dubbed (English-language viewers will hear his voice and get Clavier et al. dubbed: this is a Eurosausage of a production, with money from half a dozen channels) but from what we can see has got the personality of the dapper, aristocratic and manipulative Talleyrand, whom he plays as a run-down Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons, wrong.
It's mostly not Malkovich's fault. The authors, best-selling popular historian Max Gallo and novelist/screenwriter Didier Decoin, have a tin ear for early 19th-century French, and make absolutely no attempt to give any of their characters period sensitivities. Ladies-in-waiting hop into bed with Napoleon like Carrie and Miranda in "Sex and the City"; the Pope expresses himself with the world-weariness of Peter Jennings tut-tutting the "Axis of Evil" speech. There is no psychological exploration of any kind: next to this clichéed pantomime, "Friends" could have been scripted by Ingmar Bergman. Talleyrand, a scion of the oldest French aristocracy turned sometime revolutionary, suggests the kidnapping and execution of a Bourbon prince after a Royalist bomb nearly blows up Bonaparte's carriage. None of the complex political and psychological reasons motivating him are even hinted at -- he's not just a slimebag, he's an uninteresting slimebag.
In the middle of this painted-porcelain debacle, Gérard Depardieu proves once again that he is one of our times' major actors. Given the underwritten part of Police Minister Joseph Fouché, Depardieu imbues the least move, the simplest word, with a haunted complexity he creates entirely on his own (and which constitutes a fascinating reading of Fouché's historical character: Depardieu's creation contains more valid historical speculation than the entire screenplay.) His Fouché sees the quasi-totalitarian secret police he invents and runs (it was Fouché who thought of making every concierge in France a police informer) as the last defense against the brutality of the dictatorial state. "If we know the thoughts of the citizens," he implies, "we can prevent them from committing crimes, and therefore spare them the excessive brutalities of widespread repression." It's a flawed rationalization, and his Fouché is a dark and tortured bear of a man, hoping vainly but ceaselessly for a goodness that eludes him. Depardieu alone would make this production bearable, but there simply isn't enough of him onscreen.
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