18 September 2005 | mik-19
Married Polish countess, Marie Walewska, falls in love with Napoleon Bonaparte, savior of her country. They engage in a passionate relationship lasting until his divorce from Empress Josephine is finalized and he is persuaded to marry into the Habsburg dynasty for political reasons.
I watched this movie on Greta Garbo's 100th anniversary, and am moved to remark on her progress as an actress. I admired her fluidity as a screen presence, but she really came into her own in the mid-30s with great performances in 'Camille', 'Anna Karenina' and in 'Conquest'. Of course she looks awesome and wears a costume like no one else, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Just watch the marvelous scene in 'Conquest', where she, as the noble countess, greets her brother after a long separation. He comments on her hair which has grown longer, making it hard to pull, and she giggles and shrieks as they chase each other through the hallway. This is the most liberated Garbo ever was, and she is adorable.
Charles Boyer is not to be outdid as Napoleon, and he has the meatier part of the two. He is mischievous and arrogant, impetuous and playful. You see the tyrant in Boyer's performance, just below the surface, waiting to be unleashed. His speech to Walewska about his dream of a United States of Europe obviously demands heightened interest in this day and age, and the quiet intensity, even solemnity of Boyer's delivery is brilliant. "I have signed many treaties, but this is the first time I am at peace", he tells her. Boyer's performance is many-layered and complex, neither hero nor scoundrel. Just very, very human.
This has got to be director Clarence Brown's best film. I really liked 'The Eagle', his sprawling silent epic with Rudolph Valentino, but as a rule I find his other Garbo pictures, 'Anna Karenina' first and foremost, vapid and lifeless.
I love a picture like 'Conquest' that affords detail in abundance, and I especially loved Maria Ouspensaya as Walewska' aging and dotty sister in-law who remembers nothing of the past 40 years. When she meets Napoleon in the parlor and he presents himself, incredulously, as the Empress of France, she smiles with tolerance, "This house is getting to be an insane asylum", she sighs, slightly scandalized. "Everybody who goes crazy thinks he is Alexander. If Alexander went crazy, who would he think he was?". "Napoleon, madame?", Boyer suggests.
Watch it. And watch out for its release on DVD.