I just love the visual imagery here. Moored midstream on the Niemen River is a beautiful and ornately decorated raft. On either side of the river stand legions of French and Russian soldiers. Flags flutter in the breeze. Tension mounts. Two boats from either side float to the raft upon which Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon would meet and, in the most unlikely turn of events, become friends. Pleasantries are exchanged. Laughter even.
The narrator tells us, “Alexander had come to the treaty as a fallen enemy but would find that to be defeated by Napoleon seemed equivalent to winning a great victory. There would be no territorial demands, no reparations -- only an intoxicating proposal to divide the world between them.”
We encounter a long sequence, from pages 81 – 88, showcasing Napoleon’s new friendship with Tsar Alexander I, the only “real” friendship Napoleon would experience in the entire story. This sequence has the feeling of an extended montage set to music.
We see them talking in the forest. Napoleon convinces him that they have no rivalry with each other and that Alexander's alignment with England is only serving their interests and not Russia’s. Alexander agrees. In fact, Alexander quickly chooses to breaks ties with England.
We see them together in a theater. We hear voice over describing their impressions of each other. Alexander is just grateful he’s coming out ahead. He could have easily lost his own country. Napoleon is just happy to have found a friend. He writes, “If Alexander were a woman, I think I should fall passionately in love with him. But, at the same time, there is something very peculiar about him -- something lacking, but it is impossible to foresee precisely what will be lacking in any given instance, for the defect seems infinitely variable.”
The Treaty of Tilsit is finalized. Tallyrand, a French diplomat, expresses concern about Alexander: “My impression of Alexander is that he is moody and impressionable, capable of acting on sudden impulses which then lead to sudden embarrassments. He is an unpredictable mixture of idealism and vanity. You have dazzled him, and you have performed a diplomatic miracle, but Alexander is weak and he is easily influenced by the last one who has his ear.”
Napoleon feels that Alexander will stand by the agreement. “Alexander and I are friends,” he says. “We have reached an understanding.”
And we come full circle in this sequence back to where we started on the raft in Niemen River where Napoleon and Alexander agree to the new treaty and exchange a fraternal embrace. The troops on either side of the river cheer. There is a cannon salute.
The next scene brings us back to Paris into the Throne Room of Tuileries Palace where we’re made witness to the dissolution of Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage. Napoleon says a few words. Josephine is a wreck. She holds out a piece of paper. “Uncontrollable sobs choke her voice” as she reads her statement:
“With the permission of my august and dear husband, I must declare that, retaining no hope of having children, who may satisfy the requirements of his policy in the interests of France, I have the pleasure of giving him the greatest proof of attachment and devotedness that was ever given on earth...”
She sobs. She can’t continue.
The Bonaparte family watches the proceedings coldly. They are unmoved by Josephine’s emotions. They have never forgiven her.
Napoleon whispers to an official, who grabs her statement off the floor. He finishes reading it to the accompaniment of her tears:
“I respond to all the sentiments of the Emperor in consenting to the dissolution of a marriage which is now an obstacle to the happiness of France, be depriving it of the blessing of being, one day, governed by the descendants of that great man, who was evidently raised up by providence to efface the evils of a terrible revolution, and to restore the altar, the throne and social order.”
She is sent to live in Malmaison. She’s in a deep state of depression.
And following a few short scenes of political maneuvering between French and Austrian diplomats, we become witness to the proxy wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louis, the Duchess of Parma, the niece of Marie Antionette, and daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria. The wedding takes place in the Throne Room in Schonbrunn Palace. Napoleon is absent. The Archduke Charles stands in for him.
Yet, by all accounts, they have a happy marriage. As she makes her way to Paris in her imperial coach, (much like Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s movie), Napoleon rides up to the coach, bangs on the door, leaps inside, and introduces himself to her much to everyone’s delight. On their first night together, Marie-Louis is trembling. He calms her nerves. He has to teach her about sex. He tells her a joke about two Swiss boys who go to a bordello for the first time. "'Well, what was it like?' the timid one asks. 'Oh,' his friend nonchalantly replied, 'The movements are ridiculously simple, but the feeling is wonderful!'"
And on the Tuileries Balcony, the same balcony in which we saw Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI face their angry mob, Napoleon stands before a crowd of civilians with Marie-Louis and holds up his new son, the infant “King of Rome.”
Josephine actually spends time with the new child and the child’s governess. She talks (unconvincingly) about the happiness it brings her to see this child. She asks about Napoleon’s happiness.
And then we’re given an odd scene full of rich symbolism, yet another broad stroke, this one alludes to the deteriorating relations between France and Russia, which will bring Napoleon's downfall.
On a narrow, sandy, Russian road, a “French courier, Major Fidon, in a heavy barouche, is making slow progress. Immediately behind him is a Russian light kibitka, which has, for some time, been unsuccessfully trying to pass him. The driver of the Russian vehicle is impatiently ringing a bell and cursing.”
The French courier, Major Fidon, stops suddenly. The Russian almost collides into the back of him. Fidon storms up to the Russian and tells him to stop ringing his bell. The Russian tells him he’s blocking the road. Fidon informs him that he is the courier to the court of Emperor Napoleon on his way to their Embassy at St. Petersburg and that, according to the rules of the road, no one is permitted to overtake or pass him. The Russian informs him that he is not in France anymore.
“If I have given you any cause to be insulted, monsieur, may I offer you immediate satisfaction?”
“If you wish to put things on that basis, then I will say good day to you, sir.” And with that, the Russian closes his door.
When the road widens, the Russian easily passes Major Fidon, who pulls out his pistol “and fires several poorly-aimed shots at the rapidly diminishing vehicle.”