Ridley Scott’s new film confronts viewers with an unfamiliar paradox: it is both wildly unreliable and resolutely demystifying, simultaneously implausible and deliberately underwhelming. The costumes are exquisite, the sets magnificent, the cavalry charges thunderous. The execution of Marie-Antoinette (Catherine Walker) is spectacular. It is also set in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with Napoleon in the audience, which he wasn’t.

One feels like one is watching people dressed in period costume in the name of an eccentric kink

Ridley Scott (director). Napoleon. 2023.

First, there is the hat—the iconic two-cornered emblem of the Napoleon myth. Joaquin Phoenix wears it crooked; then it falls off; then Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) gets to wear it. In Russia, he tears at the hat in anger and at Waterloo it is finally punctured by an English musket ball.

Such a bold deflation of Napoleonic iconography should be welcome. What does Napoleon mean to the French? Imagine what a mix of Henry VIII and Churchill would mean to the British: symbol of national unity; alibi for ruling-class legitimacy; and pretext for sycophancy, saber rattling, and empty rhetoric. It’s true that Napoleon has relatively few national monuments in his honor and far fewer Avenues and Boulevards to his name than de Gaulle—or for that matter most of his own generals—but he is still one of the great national symbols, a status the current president, Emmanuel Macron, seems keen to nurture. Though careful to recall Napoleon’s “faults” during the 2021 bicentenary of Napoleon’s death (arbitrary power, the reestablishment of slavery, the death toll of the Napoleonic wars across Europe), the French president nonetheless paid passionate tribute to the “builder and the law-giver” responsible for France’s civil and penal codes and (not in so many words) its centralized state apparatus. As Macron emerged from the turbulence caused by his widely loathed pension reforms, he declared: “We have ahead of us a hundred days of appeasement, unity, ambitions, and action in the service of France”—a reference to Napoleon’s last campaign, Les Cent-Jours, though perhaps an infelicitous one given how that campaign ended. Such bogus allusions to the Napoleon myth, designed to secure popular docility, have not been unusual in France over the past 200 years. But, though the Napoleon celebration creates the conditions for deflation and almost necessitates it, Ridley Scott fails to make full use of that opportunity: for all its effortful deflation, Scott’s Napoleon is not as subversive—nor as refreshing—as it might have been.

Many reviewers have pointed out that Napoleon is flagrantly inaccurate—which it is. Falsifying history should hardly come as a surprise in a historical epic. There have been a few Napoleon biopics, none terribly accurate. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in the extraordinary silent five-hour Napoléon, 1927) is a great intellectual—the film probably overstates his genius and high-minded sense of purpose. Marlon Brando’s Napoleon (in Désirée, 1954), meanwhile, is better looking than the Corsican general probably was, and certainly taller. The primary purpose of these falsifications is, of course, to make the work more entertaining. The intent may be a little cheap, but then again these films are supposed to entertain.

By contrast, Fabrice, in Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), fights an exceptionally undramatic Waterloo. He spends much of the day looking for the battle, asking a fellow hussar at one point, “mais ceci est-il une véritable bataille?” Is this a proper battle? He never really understands what’s going on, and his principal feelings are horror and embarrassment. Before long, Fabrice’s horse is requisitioned and he finds himself sitting on his ass in the mud, crying tears of frustration. This demystified version convinces as an accurate if not exciting representation of a 19th-century battle. Stendhal knew what he was talking about (he wrote a biography of Napoleon, published posthumously) and consciously chose comically imagined accurate detail over drama. These case studies can serve as paradigmatic: on the one hand, fictional representations that make stuff up in order to glorify and entertain; on the other hand, versions that demystify, with the merits of gritty detail if not of grandiose swashbuckling.

But Ridley Scott’s new film confronts viewers with an unfamiliar paradox: it is both wildly unreliable and resolutely demystifying, simultaneously implausible and deliberately underwhelming. The costumes are exquisite, the sets magnificent, the cavalry charges thunderous. The execution of Marie-Antoinette (Catherine Walker) is spectacular. It is also set in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with Napoleon in the audience, which he wasn’t. But it certainly reads well. Napoleon personally leads a cavalry charge, saber drawn, at the Battle of Waterloo: the result is as visually striking as it is silly. Scott’s sense of how to compose a shot for the big screen is impressive: in another era, he would have been a court painter, working on huge canvases. At the same time, however, not only does Napoleon’s hat keep falling off, but he wheezes in battle, falls asleep during briefings, and throws food at children. Even the battle scenes, which are arguably the film’s strong point, seem shot on locations patently unlike the actual battlefields and involve fairly few extras. We are a long way from the tens of thousands of soldiers who were present at the battles of the Napoleonic wars, as we are from the 15,000 costumed extras of Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterful Waterloo (1970): most reports place Scott’s extras at a pitiful 500.

What is the effect of this strange alchemy? Not only is the implausibility of Phoenix’s performance (brilliant though it is) itself mesmerizing, it is so contagious that it seems to affect the characters themselves. One feels like one is watching people dressed in period costume in the name of an eccentric kink, role-playing their way through a tawdry and obscure game. In other words, even the protagonists seem unable to escape the disbelief and even awkwardness the film solicits. In their very first exchange, Josephine asks Napoleon, “What is this costume you have on?” and in so doing she voices the question the audience wants to ask Joaquin Phoenix. The scene in which Napoleon decisively falls in love with Josephine, who is, at this point, sporting a sexy hairstyle more reminiscent of Jean Seberg in À Bout de Souffle (1960) than of most contemporary portraits, begins with her asking: “When you look at me, do you see an aristocrat?” When Phoenix-Napoleon answers “No,” he could be speaking for all of us. As the scene continues, and Josephine embarks on gory allusions to her and her ex-husband’s promiscuous sex lives, it resembles less an exchange between late 18th-century French aristocrats navigating volatile regime change and more a 21st-century Anglo-American couple experimenting with calling one another “General” and “Madame.”

This early scene sets the tone for much of what will come later. Making a supreme effort, Phoenix-Bonaparte gets into the character of the architect of Europe and announces to Josephine: “My destiny is more powerful than my will and my affections must yield to the interests of my people.” In response she bursts out laughing—and who can blame her? By now, we’ve seen Josephine call Napoleon “You filthy man” in tender reprimand, and complain, less tenderly, “I spend hours cleaning up after you.” We’ve seen her spit “You’re fat” at him and seen Napoleon respond, “I enjoy my meals, I do!” Their exchanges are often prosaic, even in writing. Napoleon’s postcard back home from his Egyptian campaign reads “the sights here are wondrous and the weather stifling hot,” while on his postcard from Austerlitz, a few years later, Bonaparte comments “My God, it’s cold here.” Soon, all the characters descend into chitchat: “Good to see you!” exclaims Napoleon’s mother (Sinéad Cusack) on first meeting Josephine; “I’m here for you, Francis,” the Tsar of Russia (Édouard Philipponnat) assures the Emperor of Austria (Miles Jupp) before Austerlitz. The Emperor has to keep a straight face all the way to the end of the battle, when the victorious Bonaparte will say to him, “Francis, so nice to finally meet you.” Napoleon himself, having confessed “I miss you” to Josephine, then addresses in the same terms his own 5th Infantry Regiment. In a less gentle moment, he threatens to give Tsar Alexander a “spanking.”

At such moments, Napoleon feels much more like an episode of The Sopranos than like a historical epic. Both Phoenix-Napoleon and Tony Soprano are represented as coming from humble Italianate backgrounds; both eat too much; both seem bored when forced to spend time in an office (one of the few times we see him behind a desk, Phoenix-Napoleon is competing with his brother throwing nuts into an urn); both have a kind of cunning cleverness, but neither is bookish or cultivated; both have anger-management problems; and so on and so on. It is difficult to imagine that any of this deliberate banality and clumsiness is unintended, and indeed Ridley Scott has said that he sees Napoleon as a kind of gangster. But what makes this film memorable—and what will make some viewers, but only some, also want to forget it—is the way it combines the banal, the colloquial, and the flat with monstrously ambitious scenes and a budget of well over a hundred million dollars. It is as if Scott wants to have his cake and eat it too, representing his protagonist as a sexually deranged mafioso while demanding that the audience revel in his grandeur. It is not clear why Scott’s cake is so hard to swallow when Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)—also a film about a rascal’s progress and an important point of reference for Scott’s early Duellists (1977)—achieves such a remarkable result with similar parameters, but it would be reasonable to put the difference down to Kubrick’s—or Thackeray’s—keener sense of historicization.

The gangsterization of Napoleon is comic enough, and not without merits. So is the film’s suggestion of a continuity between Ancien Régime and Empire, rather than between Revolution and Empire, as Napoleon—guided by Josephine de Beauharnais, after all an Ancien Régime courtisane—clumsily dances his way through crowds of lavishly dressed aristocrats sipping wine in dark, heavily furnished salons to the tune of baroque music. There are innumerable such scenes: their mood alone is enough to make clear that this Napoleon is no continuator of the work of the revolution. To this extent, Scott’s Napoleon subscribes, willy-nilly, to the left-wing view of the 1790s most recently put forward by Marc Bélissa and Yannick Bosc (Le Consulat de Bonaparte, 2021), which highlights the break between the egalitarian and decentralizing revolutionary project that existed up to 1795, and, thereafter, the centralized “république des propriétaires” developed through the Directory, Consulate and Empire.

But such demystification hardly makes for a good story. From The Duellists, Scott’s very first feature, right through to The Last Duel (2021), Scott’s previous historical epics have been structured around some kind of antagonism, missing in Napoleon, between an upwardly mobile villain with dubious legitimacy—from Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) to Jacques Legris (Adam Driver)—and a downwardly mobile hero with bad manners and a good heart. A good swordsman with few social graces and a knack for organizing, he stands up for justice with the underdogs (gladiators, outlaws), often to his self-sacrificing end. With the exception of the sleeker Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) in The Duellists, Maximus (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator (2000), Balian (Orlando Bloom) in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Robin Hood (Russell Crowe, 2010) all fit the bill. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) in The Last Duel could be yet another embodiment of the type, but stretched to its limits and already wearing thin: the gruff hero has become boorish to the point of beastliness; he fights alone and unliked for an abused wife he turns out to be abusing as well, while the focus of political daring, organizational efficiency and humane likeability has been transferred to his wife, Marguerite.

Napoleon further explodes the duel structure—but with no Marguerite de Carrouges: this is Harvey Keitel without a Keith Carradine, Joaquin Phoenix without Russell Crowe. Potential counterparts to Napoleon’s imperial thuggishness are neutralized or not even considered: Robespierre (Sam Troughton), both too radical and not soldier enough, is quickly dispatched as a chubby coward unable to fire a gun (much is made of his infamous failure to take his own life). In contrast to the soppy romanticization of the revolutionary French in Les Misérables (2012, for the film version), here the people are portrayed as a bloodthirsty, fickle mob—perhaps a symptom of the cultural elites’ distrust of “populism” in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the Gilets Jaunes, and the storming of the Capitol.

Alternatively, Napoleon could have been presented as a republican himself, playing Napoleon against Napoleon, if necessary: the revolutionary Corsican youth, to whom Beethoven dedicated music, who then betrayed his own principles as the French Emperor. After all, Napoleon himself tried to emphasize his republicanism in his final exile, where he expressed his admiration for the American republic, describing himself as “no more than George Washington crowned,” and declaring, “I am no less a citizen for having become Emperor.” Without having to accept that revisionist narrative at face value, the film could have invested the conflict, incarnated by a single figure, between republicanism and absolutism. But Ridley Scott has no time for Napoleon the lawmaker and republican: either because he is reluctant to present Napoleon in such a positive light, or because he has lost faith and interest in republicanism itself. So, exeunt the Italian campaign and the Rosetta Stone.

Slaves from the French colonies freed by the Revolution (and re-enslaved by Napoleon in 1802) only make token appearances as background extras or minor parts and the colonial question is displaced to Egypt and the cultural terrain of looted art, as Napoleon stares at a mummy in a scene with Ozymandian overtones. His connection to the planter interest through Josephine (born in Martinique) is never pressed, the better to leave her available as an alternative goody.

But, though Josephine’s lifeline is her womb, and she is repeatedly subjected to bad sex, her resistance boils down to erotic initiative, and, ultimately, tearful pleading or sulkiness as Napoleon discards her at the bidding of the formidable Madame mère, in a mother/whore dichotomy that hardly rescues the female perspective as a viable counterweight. Instead, viewers must make do with a motley combination of the downtrodden—queens (brave Marie-Antoinette led to the guillotine), horses (spectacularly blown to pieces by artillery), and soldiers (the death toll of the Napoleonic wars is hypocritically announced at the eleventh hour, after Scott has had his epic way with the film and with us).

Of course, a sense of historical conjuncture, a representation of conflicting social pressures, or an invitation to read the film against the grain might all simply be irrelevant criteria for a Hollywood action film. But this is not necessarily the case. For example, in Enemy of the State (1998), directed by Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother), NSA agents plot to assassinate a congressman and then organize a criminal coverup: the film denounces the corruption of the American deep state years before WikiLeaks. Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down (2001) is—among other things—a devastating portrayal of American military overconfidence and ensuing debacle.

In the absence of an alternative source of charismatic energy or narrative interest, the demystifying impulse in Napoleon is unable to generate a story and dissolves into loosely connected satirical scenes that make for a rather boring first two thirds of the film. In The Duellists, Scott’s only other film set during the Napoleonic Wars, the period served as background to an absorbing foreground: the murderous rivalry between the two protagonists. In Scott’s latest film, the Napoleonic Wars are also reduced to context—but the context of nothing. In the last third, though, once Napoleon faces certain defeat at the hands of the allied forces of counterrevolution—once he is, in other words, totally unthreatening—the film finds its pace and focus, treating us to the doomed epic of the gray-coated and grim-faced emperor-soldier and culminating in a poignant rendition of the battle of Waterloo in which viewers naturally side with Napoleon rather than with a paunchy and pompous Wellington (excellently rendered by Rupert Everett). Finally, Scott seems to be making the film he wanted to make from the first.

One hypothesis for this formal contradiction would be that it manifests deeper conceptual contradictions—namely between a vague, but strong, sense that Napoleon can’t serve as a contemporary hero, on the one hand, and, on the other, an inability to rally behind a counter-narrative, or alternative force (whether the people, the Republic, Robespierre, the Monarchy, or even Wellington). Put differently, Scott’s Napoleon has no faith in the possibility of a bourgeois epic (the classic Great Man film, a genre in which Hollywood is still prolific—see, for instance, this year’s Oppenheimer and Maestro)—but is unable to move forward to a jacobin worldview, or even to move back to a royalist one.

Napoleon famously prophesied, “Quand je ne serai plus là, tout le monde dira: Ouf!”: When I’m gone, everyone will say: Phew! This still holds true for some of today’s rulers; for others, especially on the French right, one rather thinks that they want him back. But for Ridley Scott, the problem takes a slightly different shape. The figure with whom he may be thought to identify is not Napoleon himself, but Jacques-Louis David (Sam Crane), the painter of the grandiose Sacre de Napoléon, whom we glimpse sketching away in Scott’s coronation scene. Nostalgic, not for the Empire necessarily, but for its spectacular representations, Scott is reaching after a style in a conjuncture that makes precisely such form impossible.

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