NAPOLEON. France, Army, Joséphine [REVIEW]

It’s not another “Gladiator”.

Katarzyna Kebernik

20 November 2023

“Napoleon” divides the audience as much as the character Bonaparte himself does. It is a spectacle for those who, instead of meticulously transferring textbooks to the screen, prefer reinterpretation and reflection on history, and rather than erecting monuments, enjoy examining cracks in marble and delving into the person hidden inside.

From the first scenes, Ridley Scott winks at us, making a pact with the audience not to treat with deadly seriousness what is about to unfold. The expectation of an epic, full of pathos, heroic spectacle quickly dissipates, already in the opening sequence: together with the rhythmically beheaded head of Marie Antoinette accompanied by a cheerful French song. This is not another Gladiator (2000). Of all Scott’s films, Napoleon is closest to The Duellists (1977). The story of the French Emperor, like the director’s debut, is characterized by subtle irony, distance, criticism of the senselessness of war, the span and abruptness of events, as well as placing the two heroes against the backdrop of violent historical changes, sometimes bringing them closer, sometimes driving them apart. Because at the center of Napoleon is not only Bonaparte but also Josephine, without whom the emperor – according to her and his words – is nobody, incomplete. The captivating Vanessa Kirby in the role of Bonaparte’s wife makes us believe in the truth of this statement. The slightly ahistorical, unruly Josephine remains an intriguing mystery from the first to the last second, both for the viewers and for her husband.

The portrayal of the titular character is the element that polarizes the audience the most – I completely buy into it, and what Ridley Scott, along with the screenwriter David Scarpa and the lead actor Joaquin Phoenix, want to convey through it (as I believe). The creators present Napoleon as an ordinary, mundane person. He is not an outstanding individual; his motivations are as simple as the last words of historical Napoleon: “France, army, Josephine.” The film consistently and not without malicious humor strips Bonaparte of charisma and class: at times, it shows him panting in fear and exhaustion after climbing the walls during a siege, at other times, it presents the most iconic moments of his life as bizarre gestures, even embarrassing. His success is the result of several factors. He is somewhat like Barry Lyndon, a schemer in the right place and time. As a promising commander, he is needed by politicians smarter than himself (especially by Talleyrand, who in Scott’s film is a kind of Littlefinger pulling the most important strings). Above all, he is propelled forward by successive successes, inflated ego – an ego that will be mercilessly unmasked in the end when the character, like an offended child, cannot accept defeat.

Napoleon is a narcissist. He is also a soldier. He loves his wife without finesse, understands only fight and war, cannot live without them. Napoleon the macho, seducing women one after another, does not exist in Scott’s portrayal – on the contrary, it is Josephine who betrays him. He is a mythomaniac who gladly attributes sayings heard from others to himself and embellishes his own achievements, for example, in the great scene with children on Saint Helena. The theme of confabulation and deviation from the truth resonates strongly, indicating an important motif throughout – we do not know the real Napoleon, only the romantic myth created about him. “Why can’t I create another myth about him, even the craziest one?” Scott seems to ask.

What is all this about? It is about opposition to the glorification of a tyrant. In the end credits, we will see a meaningful summary of the number of casualties during the Napoleonic wars. Stripping Napoleon of attributes that even his enemies never denied him – strategic genius, strength of character, outstanding intellect, leadership skills – Scott exposes Bonaparte, showing him as a common war criminal, who today should be remembered more as the 19th-century equivalent of Hitler (the director openly admits that such a comparison was his intention). He is a military man who, for his own ambition, sent millions to their deaths and blatantly disregarded human life, especially towards the end of his career.

At times, Phoenix reminded me in this film of Kyle MacLachlan from the third season of Twin Peaks. Like Lynch’s Cooper, Scott’s Emperor of the French is a puppet, an empty shell, a shadow of a man created after stripping him of legend and the aura of extraordinariness. In the role of Napoleon, Phoenix also flirts with his own filmic image and major accomplishments from his repertoire. After casting an outstanding actor in the biography of a famous figure, one would expect a completely different role: charismatic, captivating. In Napoleon, however, we get another slightly neurotic, visibly weary character from Phoenix’s repertoire. Even in the initial scenes, when Napoleon is a young military man at the beginning of his career, the actor himself looks like a fifty-year-old, and no effort was made to visually rejuvenate him. It’s a young-old, lost-in-action clown in a ludicrously ornate uniform.

“What kind of costume is this?” – Josephine asks at the first meeting with her future husband, pointing to his military uniform. Napoleon’s story is, for Scott, a kind of costume, a pretext to tell something more, to capture the desperate absurdity, macabre, and carnage that befell Europe engulfed in the madness of the Napoleonic wars. Although Scott is not as radical and exaggerated in exposing the artificiality of forms and social roles, in the facade of honors and the nonsense of climbing the social ladder as, for example, Lanthimos and McNamara in The Favourite (2018), his Napoleon also has a certain theatricality and conventionality, unrestrained and wild freedom in reinterpreting historical monuments. Certainly, this is not a film to be interpreted in a realistic key.

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Although Napoleon has many comedic and even grotesque accents, it remains a war spectacle with brilliantly staged battle scenes: surprising, creative, not always consistent with the actual course of battles, as the director recently explained. Responsible for the image, Dariusz Wolski created a true theater of chaos and blood; he should be nominated for an Oscar by default. The scenes of soldiers dying in the icy waters of Austerlitz, with trance-like, almost pagan-Viking music in the background, will stay with me for a long time.

Just for these spectacular scenes, it’s worth watching the whole thing on the big screen. The theatrical version of the film is not – as we know – the director’s cut. Scott failed to push his intended, almost five-hour version into theaters, but we will see it soon on the Apple platform. The director has problems with selecting his material, so a longer Napoleon doesn’t necessarily mean a better one. In my opinion, the theatrical version absolutely holds its ground, although there are moments when you can feel that there has been a cut. Napoleon is an ordinary and small man, but Ridley Scott proves that he can still be great. Above all, because he remains a creator in search, taking risks, enamored with the possibilities of cinema despite his advanced age and established position.”

Katarzyna Kebernik

Katarzyna Kebernik

She lives for reading, watching, listening and telling stories.

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