- The long awaited Napoleon by Ridley Scott hits French screens on Wednesday.
- The French emperor has inspired many directors since the founding of cinema. In the amazing Rzhevsky against Napoleonreleased in Russia in 2012, it is performed by Volodymyr Zelensky, the current Ukrainian president.
- 20 minutes saw this comedy reminiscent of the ‘cheesy’ French comedies of the 1970s and interviewed two specialists, in very different fields.
From Albert Dieudonné, in Abel Gance’s 1927 film, to Joaquin Phoenix, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster that hits theaters this Wednesday: Napoleon has been played by generations of actors. The French Emperor’s extraordinary journey has inspired works of varying quality, but rarely an OFNI (unidentified film object) like the Rzhevsky against Napoleon (Rzhevskiy protiv Napoleona in original version), directed by American-Russian Maryus Vaysberg and released in Russia in January 2012.
First originality of this short comedy (barely 1h19, but that’s already too much) based on bawdy jokes tinged with homophobia, anachronisms and histrionics of the actors: the Corsican strategist, at least as obsessed with female conquests as territorial (his antics in Italy are even the origin of the slope of the Tower of Pisa…) is interpreted by Volodymyr Zelensky.
The current Ukrainian president, who has become a symbol of resistance since the Russian invasion in February 2022, is a famous actor at the time who divides his life between Kiev and Moscow. “This film is in line with certain comedies that Russians continue to appreciate,” explains Joël Chapron, specialist in films from the cold. This form of humor was implemented through “KVN”. » In the early 2000s, Zelensky and his Kvartal 95 gang were a hit in this very popular comedy show. “We see humorous sketches that parody facts from everyday life, films, songs, personalities,” continues Joël Chapron, also a senior researcher at the University of Avignon.
“As for Ryevsky, he is a character invented in the 1940s, who wants to be smooth-talking as well as flirtatious and heroic. There have been many films inspired by what was originally a play, and increasingly more parody films. With this one, of which Zelensky is a co-writer, we have come to the end of the end of the end. There are only extremely famous actors in Russia. I don’t know how much they paid to play in this pochade. »
Leo Tolstoy goes back in time
Let’s get to work, it’s time. Stay focused and apologize for the “revelation”: After the defeat at the Battle of Moscow in September 1812, Tsar Alexander I’s army decided to abandon Moscow to the Imperial forces. However, the Russians plan to trap the enemy by disguising Colonel Ryevsky with the help of the writer Leo Tolstoy (met in the future, since he was born in 1828). The illustrious writer accompanies his new friend back in time, making a surprise appearance on a magic carpet near the end of the film. This vision, made possible by dubiously rendered special effects, has left a lasting impression on our retinas.
Naturally, Napoleon will fall in love with the spy, leading to numerous and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Although we are very busy fending off the attacks of the lustful Emperor, our beautiful Russian heart finds the time to fall in love with Natacha Rostov (the heroine of War and peace by Tolstoy), himself disguised as a man to infiltrate the Imperial Guard! The masks will fall after a fight like Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, Moscow will burn due to a poorly controlled BDSM session, and Rhevsky, newly married to Napoleon, will go to save his beloved.
Everything ends with a “happy ending” tsarist version: after the withdrawal from Russia, the emperor in rags accidentally meets the two lovebirds who came as tourists to Montmartre with a view of the Eiffel Tower (anachronism intended, one hopes) and these beautiful people go poor into a smiling future in arms.
“Gags that no longer have an audience these days”
When the credits end, after a session of French cancan against the backdrop of the intoxicating Moscow by Dschinghis Khan followed by an unnecessary blooper, the question immediately arises: have we seen a nanar, who causes hilarity despite himself, or an ordinary turnip? “It’s on the border between the two,” says Julien Gautier, contributor to Nanarland.com, the site for good and bad films. If I had to rate it, I would maybe give it a rating of 1/5. On paper the concept looks formidable, especially with the unexpected presence of Jean-Claude Van Damme. But in the end it’s still quite painful. It reminds me of French or Italian comedies from the 1970s, with humor that hasn’t evolved much since then. »
On Nanarland, Rzhevsky against Napoleon could possibly find its place in the category of ‘pouet pouet comedies’, next to the unbeatable Fuhrer in madness and from My wife’s name is Mauritsdirected by Jean-Marie Poiré, from which our Russian film derives its hectic rhythm.
Nothing happens, but it doesn’t stop for a second, Julien Gautier summarizes nicely. The stories about transvestism, about the man who falls in love with a girl who is actually a man, and very poorly disguised, are great classics. But here they made a whole movie around this idea. It’s almost Max Pécas. Everyone only thinks about sex. These are jokes that no longer have an audience today. »
We will nevertheless try to highlight some highlights from this production, of which unfortunately we have only been able to capture the references to Western culture (several attempts at Beautiful ladythe “Hasta la Vista” from Terminator 2A poor man’s Leeloo straight out Fifth element):
- the most unlikely passage: on several occasions, the actors begin dancing in Bollywood style without warning. But no musical moment is the same as playing Napoléon/Zelensky And if you didn’t exist by Joe Dassin, when the Emperor visits the spy he loved, who is imprisoned at this point in the film. “And we continue with the great classic in Spanish Quiz, quiz, quiz which also comes from nowhere,” smiles Julien Gautier.
- the cameo that serves no purpose: Jean-Claude Van Damme makes an appearance after half an hour of film lasting approximately one minute and thirty seconds. Dressed in traditional costume, he first speaks French and then English with Ryevsky, who speaks only Russian. The spy recovers the JCVD outfit after a brief battle that is only hinted at. Why put together a choreography when you can film a closed door and add fighting sounds? Had the Belgian, who wasn’t too worried, hidden between two direct-to-video sessions? Apparently not, according to the Russian press at the time, which indicates that the hero of Blood sports simply asked for reimbursement of the travel and accommodation in a large apartment in the center of Kiev, a city that, according to the same source, he particularly appreciated for its nocturnal charm.
- Zelensky’s composition: The style of the film shows that the acting of the Ukrainian president is closer to the overactivity of Christian Clavier (former interpreter of Napoleon himself). Visitors then the monolithicism of Charles Bronson in the saga of Vigilante in the city. “We can’t say he is a bad actor, but you have to see what he plays,” summarizes Julien Gautier. However, nothing can be said about his overall involvement, whether he emerges from the water of a lake with a flower in his hand or engages in a dance battle in the heart of the palace in Moscow.
- Napoleon seen from Russia: The emperor, here immersed in the shadow of Rzhevsky, the film’s real hero, appears as a bumbling character rather than a true antagonist. “Even if they were to defeat him with Alexander I, the Russians really respect the personality of this man, who conquered almost all of Europe before losing his teeth in their country,” notes Joël Chapron. They are not at all vengeful towards him as they are towards Hitler. »
With the specialist in Russian cinema we complete the evocation of this remarkable cinematographic object, which brought together 918,800 and 457,700 spectators in Russian and Ukrainian cinemas respectively. “It’s not exceptional, but it’s not bad either,” he says. “Today this work lies deep in the archives and is not about to come out, neither in Russia nor in Ukraine,” continues Joël Chapron. But even two years after its release, I don’t know if Zelensky would have agreed to star in this film, with Donbass and Crimea on the Russian side. »
Eleven years later, the senseless antics of that time have given way to the tragedy of war. Some actors left Russia, others remained loyal to Putin. As for the hero Pavel Derevianko (alias Rzhevski), he faces ten years in prison if convicted in an obscure cryptocurrency fraud case. And Jean-Claude Van Damme in all this? He appeared in early October in a fragment of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which thanked Belgium for its support in the conflict.