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After a brief informal meeting two months earlier when they were impressed with each other, Countess Marie Walewska formally meets Napoleon Bonaparte at a ball in Warsaw. When Napoleon notes her husband is three times her age, and as he is taken with her charms, he unsuccessfully tries to seduce her. She ignores his frequent letters and flowers until a few grim Polish leaders led by Senator Malachowski urge her to give into his desires as a personal sacrifice in order to save Poland. She goes to him despite the humiliation of her husband, who leaves for Rome to annul their marriage. They are extremely happy for a while; Napoleon divorces childless Empress Josephine and Marie eventually becomes pregnant. She is about to tell Napoleon about her baby when he tells her he decided to marry Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. He explains it will be a political marriage to insure his future son could rule securely with Hapsburg blood in him. It will not affect their relationship, he says, ... Written by
Arthur Hausner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Stunning visuals, marvelous performances, outstanding direction but not Garbo's best
CONQUEST (1937) directed by one of Garbo's favorite directors, Clarence Brown, is a movie that appears to have multiple levels of analysis. It is a historical epic, it is a romance, it is a Garbo movie and a Charles Boyer movie at the same time. Moreover, it is a Hollywood classic production from the days when art meant something more than automatic computerized techniques.
I had usually wondered why many modern movie buffs turn to old films until I myself came across one or two true silver screen classics and fell in love with them. Now, for me, the most obvious answer to that question is that these films had a soul, they were made for beauty and passed this beauty to the world. In other words, they really had something to offer. However, they were also vehicles for stars. Among the actresses that still stands as a symbol of that cinema is Greta Garbo.
Garbo, however, does not appear to be so good here as in her other films. She has a difficult role that, logically, occurs quite vague for the Swede. She portrays a very specific patriot, a Polish patriot, Marie Walewska whose love to her nation is psychologically torn by the love to a great conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte (Charles Boyer). He was, historically speaking, a great hope for the Poles since Poland did not exist at the map at the time and patriots hoped that by gaining Europe, he will help Poland rise again from the oppression of three neighboring empires. And that is mentioned clearly in the movie; yet Garbo turns out to be better in the romantic side of the role than in the historical one.
Charles Boyer as Napoleon is perfect. He truly portrays an ambitious unstable character: proud, inconsistent, emotional, sometimes furious, strong yet easily broken conqueror whose psyche is built upon power and madness, upon courage and fear. He is the one who shakes the very fundamentals of Europe and, to the contrary, the one who is shaken within. His performance is truly one among the very best in the history of cinema and, as a result, his character is usually dominant in CONQUEST even though the film is not solely on Napoleon. There are roles everlasting, like Peter Ustinov's in QUO VADIS (1951), Garbo's in QUEEN Christina (1933), Bergman's in CASABLANCA (1942). So is it with underrated Charles Boyer's in CONQUEST (1937).
Except for the aforementioned advantage of the movie, the historical events appear to be shadowed in the movie, directed towards background, like in many Hollywood movies of the time. Therefore, history is not a strong point of the film. Yet, the two other strengths about CONQUEST that should still be appreciated and cherished are stunning visuals and memorable moments. Clarence Brown was very good at directing elegant sequences in royal courts. He proved that in ANNA KARENINA a few years earlier as well as in other of his productions and that is exactly what we have here in CONQUEST: exceptionally beautiful picture of a "luxurious life" with lavish sets. Consider, for instance, the Schonnbrunn scenes or a visually symbolic pearl when the map of Europe is shadowed by the figure of Napoleon.
As far as memorable moments are concerned, I most admired the romantic short scene when Napoleon tells Walewska "I love you" - such a well known sentence in cinema, yet presented in a beautiful way: snow falls as if it sealed their words. Among funny moments, the one worth considering is the hilarious conversation between Napoleon and Countess Pelagia Walewska: when she asks him who he is and he tells her "Napoleon", that does not make sense to her at all. I also laughed at the scene when Napoleon learns to dance with Walewska. Among the supporting cast, the performance that I find worthy attention is Dame May Witty's as Laetitia Bonaparte, Napoleon's mother.
CONQUEST is a very beautiful film, a classic like many other movies of the time. However, as I have already mentioned, do not treat it as Garbo vehicle or your first Garbo movie for it is not. CONQUEST is the last film Garbo made with Clarence Brown, her last great love story but it is not at all similar to ANNA KARENINA or QUEEN Christina. CONQUEST is foremost an epic, a romance, a picture of sentimental patriotism and a Charles Boyer splendid manifestation of talent. 9/10
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