Thursday 16 April 2015

Film Review: Napoléon - Christian Claviér TV Miniseries

Okay, so strictly speaking this is a TV Miniseries, and not a film. But it's presented as four 90 minute episodes, so it's near enough a set of four films. Anyway, I like to keep my categories simple!

If you're as nuts about the Napoleonic era as I am - it's such a fascinating, colourful period, rich in historical drama on the grandest scale - seeking out stories of those times brought to life for the large or small screen can become a compulsion. And, whether it be via Tolstoy's War & Peace, or watching Sean Bean as Sharpe, there are lots of diverse things one can read, watch, or listen to, in order to soak up Napoleonic history (or at least various peoples ideas of it).

Within all of this, and in sharp contrast to the book category, in which Napoleon and his wars are amongst the most written about of subjects, there are, to my mind at any rate, surprisingly few really satisfying film or TV options. For me Abel Gance's legendary 1927 film, Napoléon, whilst undoubtedly appropriately Napoleonic in ambition, doesn't transfer very well to the small screen. In addition to only covering a tiny portion of his story, it's embroiled in a controversy of ownership, resulting in limited availability. And the version that is available is itself controversial, having been tinkered with by Copploa and associates.

Buying Malmaison for Josephine.

Partly because the epic film Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger, didn't end up faring as well at the box office as hoped, Kubrick's putative Napoleonic movie never came to fruition, and most series that have either commanded big budgets, like Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 War & Peace, or have enjoyed popular success, like ITV's Sharpe series, have only included Napoleon himself as a background figure. 

I learned of the existence this series via my Spanish brother-in-law - I'm not aware of it ever have been given much attention here in the UK - who told me about it around the time it was originally released. After looking into it a little I hesitated, for several years! It just didn't look quite right, somehow. And at only six hours, in four 90 minute episodes, I suspected it would be too truncated.

Young Boney on camel-back in Egypt.

However, in the end I gave in to the lure of curiosity. Having found it at a bargain price on DVD, as one of a set of four historical miniseries packaged for the Dutch market, I bought it. It turned out that my misgivings had some foundations. For one thing verything is too squeaky clean: uniforms are always impeccably pristine, skin and teeth are all distinctly of the 20th Century movie-star type, there's no horse manure in the streets, and so on. And the time limitations result in the need for constant exposition.

Talleyrand doesn't like the stench of death up close.

On first viewing I was pretty seriously disappointed, for numerous reasons, including those already referred to. I also found my mind was constantly wandering, i.e. the programmes simply weren't holding my attention. But I've now watched the series a few times, and it is slowly growing on me. 

Depardieu's name had attracted me to the series, whereas Malkovich's had, for some reason, kind of put me off. Depardieu plays Fouché and Malkovich is Talleyrand. Both are charismatic and convincing in their roles. That these established names transpire to be such strong performers is perhaps not so surprising. However, Christian Clavier [1] and Heino Ferch, as Napoleon and Caulaincourt respectively, were both new to me. They play their roles admirably, Clavier especially so. Whilst I believed in and quite liked Ferch as Caulaincourt, I never quite believed in his sideburns... as much as I wanted to!

Strategy and tactics in the field, and at home.

Some of the supporting roles, however, are less convincing. I really didn't buy many of the female players: those portraying Madame Mere, Hortense and Napoleon's sisters were, for the most part, pretty tolerable (if also, perhaps, like all the female leads, intolerably pretty), but the saloniéres he meets, early in the plot, amongst whom is Isabella Rosellini as Josephine, and his later amours, Marie Waleska and Marie Louise, I just didn't find believable. The very beautiful actress playing Marie Louise, Mavie Hörbiger, delivers her lines like she's some kind of fem-bot!

There are also one or two male casting choices that don't work very well either: whilst I found Yves Jacques very believable as Napoleon's brother Lucien, Ennio Fantastichini was, to my mind, utterly unconvincing as his other brother, Joseph. Though to be fair to the fabulously named Fantastichini, this might've been a result of the wooden and disembodied dubbing, and not his acting. For me Amendola's Yankee Murat just really doesn't work. 

Mavie Hörbiger, astonishingly beautiful
but terribly wooden as Marie Louise. 

As already mentioned, the time constraints cause narrative compression, which in turn produces a need for continual exposition, resulting in a script that feels contrived and unnatural. It's a difficult ask, telling Napoleon's story in six hours, and judging on the evidence of these results, the series should've been at least twice as long. The result of all this is that Clavier's Napoleon is continually telling the audience what's happening, as opposed to portraying a charismatic inspirational leader. Perhaps the producers underestimated the audiences capacity for understanding? In my view by making the series too short they fall between two stools: there's too much compression and missing info for the novices, and it's too sketchy and dumbed down for the history buffs.

I forget which battle scene this is from, but, whichever it is, almost
certainly Clavier's Napoleon is just about to start explaining something!

It seems also that many of the more recent portrayals of stories of this era, such as the 2007 War & Peace (also part of the Dutch historical miniseries set containing this series), seek to strip out most of the military, political or philosophical strands, concentrating instead on relationships, and thereby turning potentially interesting history into little more than period-drama soap-operas. 

This series doesn't go quite as far in that direction as the aforementioned War & Peace, but in the end the problem is that none of the strands, save perhaps Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, are dealt with in sufficient detail. And I'm afraid that, for me - although perhaps this is not true for the female audience for this series? - this is hardly the most interesting strand in Napoleon's amazing life story.

Alors, I'm bored with all this splendour!

Or maybe not? By the lights of this series, what Napoleon liked best,
was pomp and splendour; natty outfits and gorgeous settings.

If you didn't know much about Napoleonic history you might watch this and think that Napoleon was primarily a man who fancied himself something of a dandy, and enjoyed swanning about in fancy palaces, as such scenarios constitute large chunks of time in this series. Well, in fairness, he probably did. Having said this, part of his campaign legend is built around the fact that he liked to dress simply, and always slept in his unostentatious portable campaign bed. However, although this latter fact is alluded to when he reaches Moscow and the Kremlin, certainly two of the best things about this series are the very sumptuous settings and the beautiful costumes.

But of course there was so much more to him, as books like Andrew Robert's recent Napoleon the Great, or Sir Walter Scott's much older The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte so ably convey. Here you get Napoleon the courtly ruler, and Napoleon the romantic - who feels forced to turn away from personal love for the sake of national politics - much more than you get Napoleon the strategist, or Napoleon the politician. Having said this, Clavier does a pretty commendable job of portraying a very driven man with seemingly unassailable reserves of self-belief.

The military buff may feel there's a little too much - as nice as multiple
sets of crinolined heaving bosoms undoubtedly are - of this...

... et ça.

And not quite enough of this...

... or this.

As mentioned above, this rendition of Napoleon's life might be felt to err more towards romance and courtly life than the battlefield, at least for us military buff types. But here's a brief run down - SPOILER WARNING! - of the significant military actions the series does cover:

13 Vendémiaire

Episode I

13 Vendémiaire - AKA the 'whiff of grapeshot' [2]: the young Bonaparte, then only 26 years old, quashes a Royalist uprising, on 13 Vendémiaire [3] (5th Oct, 1795), in front of the Église Saint-Roch, Saint-Honoré Street, Paris. In my reading and researches on this particular topic, it remains blurred: was Napoleon actually facing a quite well organised and large force? Or was it a rabble of armed civilians? as this TV adaptation depicts it. Napoleon refused to go to the Vendée to fight French Royalists, for which he fell from favour. This action catapulted him back into the spotlight. The way it's presented here seems rather too stagey to me, and also veers towards a Royalist-sympathetic reading of the event, with Napoleon butchering women and youngsters. [4]

Austrian troops oppose the crossing tof the bridge at Arcole.

Bridge at Arcole - In this TV adaptation, Napoleon grabs a flag and runs onto the bridge, to rally and lead his faltering troops. He and his troops are nevertheless beaten back. Actually the French did take the bridge, but only after three days of bloody fighting which cost the French more losses than the Austrians. This famous scene, in which Napoleon is cast as the flag-waving hero without fear, and is the subject of many paintings and prints (one in particular, by Antoine-Jean Gros, is a favourite for book covers and dust-jackets) is a very succesful piece of Imperial propaganda. Napoleon was indeed very brave, and did do something a bit like this. But apparently near the bridge, as opposed to at the front of his troops on the bridge. Still, this is both better staged and more convincing, whatever it's relation to history, than the 13 Vendémiaire scene.

French troops at Austerlitz: looking pretty good up front,
but pretty shabby - tubular plastic shakes? - in back!

Episode II

Austerlitz, 1805 - This is one of the battle scenes the producers devoted most time (and doubtless money) to. I think the sequence is about seven or eight minutes long. As the picture above shows, some of the uniforms are quite well done, whilst others are less so. I don't know much about Austerlitz, other than Boney gave the Austrians and the Russians a damnably good drubbing (the casualties and losses figures say it all!). I want to like this, 'cause it's a topic that fascinates me, but somehow it falls flat. A good book on a battle is, I find, more evocative than a mediocre film version. I feel bad saying that, when you consider the effort that must've gone into this. But in the end, it needed more men, better costumes, more convincing direction, and less wooden acting!

A rather splendid shot from the sumptuous post-Austerlitz captured flag gloating parade.

Jena - There is a brief treatment of Jena. But without returning to re-watch it (and time doesn't allow that at the time I'm typing this) I'm afraid I can't recall anything of this battle as it appears in the series!

Eylau - This another battle where it looks like they went to a large degree of effort and expense, but it's pretty much ruined for me by the weird combination of it clearly having been filmed in bright sunlight, and yet then having CGI snow added. It just looks very weird and totally unreal. The end result is that the whole thing is, for me, very unconvincing. And not only does it have this weirdly unreal look, but it also suffers from the same problems as the Austerlitz segment. In its favour, it is another of the longer sections (seven or eight minutes long again, like Austerlitz). The Imperial guard do at least look very dashing! And also there's some sense of narrative development in the action.

Amendola's Murat prepares to lead the cuirassier's ...

... across the sunny-snowy (!?) fields of Eylau.

Episode III

Eylau - Episode three starts where episode two left off, Murat's cavalry charge combining some of the best and the worst the series has to offer: these are some of the most splendidly uniformed and accoutred of the actors/extras, yet the drama is about as wooden as Amendola's portrayal of Murat. And that damn super-bright sunny snowscape... it really spoils what could've been one of the series better moments (for me at any rate). The scene with Napoleon alone after the battle almost manages to restore some poignancy and gravitas.

Aspern Essling - The series does this a bit better, by and large, with a nice set-piece where the Austrians destroy one of Boney's pontoon bridges with a fire-barge. The death of Marshal Lannes, thanks largely to the better than average acting (for this series) of Sebastian Koch, as Lannes, also manages to finally achieve some real feeling.

Murat (Amendola), Bonaparte, and Caulaincourt (Ferch), surveying
the exotic gilded onion-domes of Moscow (pronounced by
Amendola's Murat as 'moss-cow').

Russia, 1812 - Rather tragically, in my view, there's no attempt to do Borodino. What a missed opportunity. But then again, given how the series fares on battles as a whole, I might just have been disappointed anyway. We get to see Napoleon and his troops entering an empty Moscow/Kremlin, and the episode ends with Napoleon contemplating the burning of Moscow.

Given what GMT did with Eylua, thank goodness they didn't
film this bit in the Sahara and add the snow later!

Episode IV

Russia, 1812 - The retreat is depicted, but not in a way that inspires me to say much about it. And that's really sad, for me, as the whole 1812 episode of Napoleonic history is one of my chief interests in the period. At least we have Bondarchuk's War & Peace! As much as the latter is a Byzantine mishmash, the battle scenes in it are at least truly epic.

Waterloo in the Ukraine: nope, these ain't from
the Claviér Napoleon...

... this is Napoleonic warfare of the properly
epic Bondarchuk variety.

Waterloo - Well, they left out Leipzig and Borodino. But I guess even the team that could countenance including scenes from Egypt and the bridge of Arcole whilst leaving those major events out couldn't leave Waterloo out! The scenes depicted are Ney's massive cavalry attack, albeit not looking quite massive enough; the French capture of La Haye Sainte; Napoleon sending in the guard; the final French rout, during which Napoleon remains within a well-formed square of Old guard grenadiers, whilst the army around him disintegrates. Another of the segments where clearly a lot of time, effort and money has been expended, but where, once again, it just doesn't quite work. 

The GMT Productions Waterloo. More sandwich than banquet?


The series starts and ends in St. Helena, and has a whole chunk set in Egypt, which looks quite good, (except for the buboes!), plus such important scenes as the coup of Brumaire, his meeting with the Pope and his crowning of himself as Emperor, the 'infernal device' assassination plot, his meeting at Tilsit with Czar Alexander (Toby Stephens in smug aristocrat more: cheesy, but easily on a par with, or better eve, than much of the acting on display here), a lot about his family and his women, but only  one extremely brief reference to Spain.

Papa Boney.

As already alluded to above, Bondarchuk and co. showed everybody just how this sort of thing should be done, first in War & Peace, and then, and perhaps even more so, in Waterloo. Sadly, in Napoleon, they skimped on too many of the uniforms for the rank and file in battle scenes, and used CGI to not only bulk out numbers, but to add such things as weather effects and explosions, etc. So, although there are things to be enjoyed here, there are also too many things that, especially to the eagle-eyes of a Napoleonic buff, leave rather too much to be desired.

The CGI cannonball ricochet that kills a mounted officer (is this from the Jena sequence?) is, alas, so synthetic it comes over as pretty lame. And the sunny Eylau with very obvious CGI snow just looks downright bizarre. There are, to be fair, some good martial moments, such as the action around the Bridge at Arcole, the death of Marshal Lannes, the fire-barge at Aspern-Essling, and some of the rear-echelon and military camp/bivouac scenes that occur throughout the series.

A rare pic that joins the usually separate themes of wilting dames
with heaving bosoms and the more martial aspects.

All things considered, whilst this was clearly an expensive and often sumptuous production, especially in terms of the imperial costumes and some of the beautiful settings, it also falls seriously short in too many areas to be considered very successful. The multinational production causes some of the problems, with an odd and inconsistent mix of accents and too many instances of disembodied dubbing. Mind you, whilst these issues also effect Bondarchuk's Waterloo, that film surmounts such shortcomings by more than making up for them in other areas. Ironically, at the end of the day one might be able to say that this whole production simply wasn't Napoleonic enough in scale or ambition.


Depardieu as Obelix, opposite Claviér's Asterix.

[1] Claviér has acted in numerous live-action adaptations of Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix adventures. So too Depardieu, as the above pic attests!

[2] A phrase that originates with Scots historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who aslo added that 'the thing we specifically call French Revolution is blown into space by it.'

[3] Vendémiaire was the first month of the French Revolutionary calendar (late September, running into October), which began the day the autumnal equinox occurred in Paris, and was thus named - derived from Latin - because it was the month of the grape harvest.

[4] It's interesting how they handle this, as this is a largely French backed telling of Napoleon's story, and whilst this episode might be construed as showing him in a poor light, the episode in Egypt includes a scene where Napoleon shows great compassion for the plague victims amongst his troops. In fact they go so far as to have him pick up and carry a soldier, kind of taking the idea of Antoine Gros' Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa rather further. This latter being in stark contrast to the 'black legend' propaganda so popular in Britain, where, far from being compassionate, Napoleon was accused - in a story originating with Sir Robert Wilson - of having a large number of his plague-stricken troops killed, with opium overdoses administered via food.

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