"Napoleon and Me" can't quite decide what it wants to be. Set on Elba during Napoleon's brief exile there, it has elements of costume spectacle, domestic comedy, period piece, drama of ideas, and that old French favorite, the sentimental education.
Certainly, the movie's 21-year-old hero, Martino (Elio Germano), stands in a long Gallic line. This is despite the fact that "Napoleon and Me" is based on an Italian novel, "N," by Ernesto Ferrero, and an Italian filmmaker, Paolo Virzi, directed it and helped write the screenplay.
As an imaginative creation, Martino is three parts Stendhal to one part Truffaut: impulsive, idealistic, smitten with being smitten. He's been enjoying a comically tempestuous affair with the much older Baroness Emilia (Monica Bellucci). An even greater passion is his hatred of the tyrant Napoleon. Martino has Romantic urges to go with his Enlightenment beliefs. He literally dreams of killing the deposed emperor.
Soon enough, he gets his chance - or chances. Martino's republican ideals have gotten him fired as a schoolteacher. One of his sister's suitors wangles him a job as Napoleon's literary secretary.
Alas, just as no man is a hero to a villain, neither is he a villain to his secretary. What Martino finds is not a tyrannous monster but a short, tubby man who's every bit as self-involved as he is. Daniel Auteuil, who plays Napoleon, bears a disconcerting resemblance to Joe Pesci wearing a fancy hat. This may or may not be intentional, but it has the desired effect, regardless. Martino's loathing is neutralized. Whether it should be is another matter. A much-admired teacher of Martino has his own ideas about imperial assassination - and the baroness about imperial seduction. These factors further complicate Martino's relationship with Bonaparte, who, lest we forget, will soon be meeting his Waterloo. Will Martino be meeting his?
"Napoleon and Me" is always lively and often charming. Virzi has a weakness for dark interiors, swoony camera movement, and Beethoven on the soundtrack (he uses the "Ode to Joy" to particularly vulgar effect). Neither Bellucci nor Auteuil takes things too seriously - while Germano, as befits his character, takes everything too seriously. That emotional imbalance is appropriate but also limiting.
The Museum of Fine Arts is presenting the film in conjunction with its exhibition "Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815." Museumgoers are better advised to see the movie before the show. Hors d'oeuvres, after all, are intended to be eaten before the meal itself - and "Napoleon and Me" is very much an hors d'oeuvre.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.