In a France beset by violent social and political turmoil, one man took control, eventually became emperor, and attempted to take over the world. But who was Napoleon really and how did he do all this? Don't expect answers or much perspective from Ridley Scott's 2023 film of Napoleon
I knew going in the film had been criticised for historical inaccuracies but that doesn't bother me per se
. If artistic liberties are taken in the interest of making good art, I say that's all right and good. But Scott ultimately doesn't seem to have a cogent thought behind this big thing.
The first twenty minutes or so are pretty good. Scott ably shows the final days of the Revolution. I particularly liked the scene in which France's governing committee turns on Robespierre (Sam Troughton). He impotently but accurately denounces their hypocrisy as they rush to murder him. I kept thinking of Werewolf of Paris
and of how that novel described the people as a populace of werewolves and it was certainly easy to see that point of view here.
Early on, Scott depicts Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) as a man above this. When an officer tells him he won't let Toulon fall to Royalists or the English, Napoleon laughs at the man's ardent partisanship. Similarly, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is at her best in early scenes when she cannily manipulates her way into Napoleon's life by playing on his ego. But both characters and their motivations, as well as the motivations of the people around them, become increasingly nebulous as the movie progresses.
Vanessa Kirby gives a forceful performance but it's never clear why Napoleon is so obsessed with her. I'd have liked a scene that showed the two had some mutual insight or understanding but there's nothing like that, just a lot of oddly inexplicit sex scenes.
Scott seemingly shares Leo Tolstoy's perspective in War and Peace
that Napoleon's intellect has been vastly overrated and that it was the force of his popularity that won him his victories. But unlike Tolstoy, Scott never credibly establishes why
Napoleon was so popular (or why Josephine loved him as more than just a means of survival). A big part of the problem is Joaquin Phoenix's performance. Phoenix is a fine actor who can play many kinds of characters but as Scott was particularly interested in his performance as the Joker, Phoenix reprises something of that character here. It's a poor fit as Phoenix's take on the Joker, while brilliant, was deliberately off-putting rather than charismatic. When people instinctively don't like him, you get it.
At the same time, I think Scott probably came away with the wrong reaction to Joker
's climactic scene. As Quentin Tarantino observed:The subversion on a massive level, the thing that’s profound is this: It’s not just suspenseful, it’s not just riveting and exciting, the director subverts the audience because the Joker is a fucking nut. Robert De Niro’s talk show character is not a movie villain. He seems like an asshole, but he’s not more of an asshole than David Letterman. He’s just an asshole comedian, talk show guy. He’s not a movie villain. He doesn’t deserve to die. Yet, while the audience is watching the Joker, they want him to kill Robert De Niro; they want him to take that gun, and stick it in his eye and blow his fucking head off. And if the Joker didn’t kill him? You would be pissed off. That is subversion on a massive level! They got the audience to think like a fucking lunatic and to want . . . And they will lie about it! They will say, ‘No, I didn’t,’ and they are fucking liars. They did.
Frankly, I think when Ridley Scott watched Joker
, he was one of the people who lied to themselves. His presentation of Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon is never a guy you root for. In fact, one of the best, most charismatic characters in the film is Wellington, played by an almost unrecognisable Rupert Everett. His point of view is clear and, from the moment he starts talking, the film's sympathy is entirely with him. After Waterloo, Napoleon is shown breakfasting on Wellington's ship, regaling a group of boys in uniform with his opinion on cannon placement. And I thought, how sad, he's reduced to forcing kids to listen to him ramble. But then the scene cuts to an officer explaining to Wellington that "the midshipmen", those boys, "love him." Really? Maybe a different actor than Phoenix or Phoenix giving a different performance could've sold that. But this movie never does. And I think it's fundamentally because Scott never allowed himself to love Napoleon.
Maybe it's just because he doesn't like the French, which seems almost amusingly clear at this point. The movie was shot almost entirely in England standing in for French locations and, responding to criticisms of his portrayal of France and Napoleon, Scott said, "The French don't even like themselves." I'm reminded of my 2010 review of Robin Hood
, another bad Ridley Scott movie, in which I wrote:I didn't have a problem with the historical inaccuracies, really--particularly not Marion's costumes, one of which featured a skirt split up the centre for riding. And it was nice seeing her hair uncovered most of the time, instead of always covered in public as per the requirements of modesty at the time. But other deviations from history might have led me to believe that Ridley Scott has a vicious hatred for the French if it weren't for the fact that
The Good Year, an earlier film of his, hadn't been such a mud bath in idyllic French countryside.
But if you're going to make a movie like Napoleon
, you have to have some honest connexion to the main character. Citizen Kane
works because it's not just Orson Welles skewering William Randolph Hearst. Welles put himself in the character, too. When Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange
, he made the atrocious Alex DeLarge one of the most charismatic characters in the history of cinema. Notably, Welles and Kubrick both tried and failed to make movies about Napoleon. Alas for what might have been. X Sonnet #1795In aging glands the life was shortly stopped.
A message soap was cancelled after six.
In twenty years, the square is ever cropped.
Computer scans complete the achy tricks.
A broken hobby horse would bandy dreams.
A shiny bottle cheered the gloomy pool.
As ragged yarns would stitch a drunkard's seams.
A frozen bucket night would kill a fool.
Before the break of ice, a cauldron cracked.
Between the stacks of corpses, horses rode.
But 'long the reel, the vision sadly slacked.
Unless the dreamer wrought a subtle code.
Exhausting fights occur as phantom days.
In ev'ry flake the snow reveals its ways.