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‘Napoleon’ review: History as farce

In the gleefully messy ‘Napoleon’, Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix trade gravitas for a chance to run riot through history

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Napoleon'. Image via AP
Joaquin Phoenix in 'Napoleon'. Image via AP

“I was having a succulent breakfast.”

The speaker is one of the Directory, the committee that ruled France in the years after the Reign of Terror, who finds himself inconvenienced by an early morning coup d’etat. It’s a line worthy of Monty Python and, coming somewhere around the half-hour mark, reveals the silly soul of Napoleon. If there’s any chance Ridley Scott’s film will be a serious Great Man biopic, this gleefully dashes it. Scott is determinedly, completely unserious. 

It’s not that Scott isn’t trying to make the best film he can. He just isn’t interested in making a certain kind of epic: rousing, edifying, Oscar-winning. Maybe he’ll return to these—Gladiator 2 is in the works. But the last three films he's made dare you to take them seriously. The Last Duel (2021) is memorable not for its Rashomon games but the Chaucerian ribaldry Ben Affleck gets up to. House of Gucci (2021) is comic opera pretending to be tragic opera, half a dozen different Italian accents tossed in a blender and served on ham. 

Napoleon ups the scale, but is nevertheless (intentionally) a farce. It begins with the future emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) a lowly army captain. Ambitious, gifted and impatient, he rises up the ranks as France passes from monarchy to Robespierre to the Directory. His great love—France—acquires a rival when he locks eyes with the widow of one of the victims of the Revolution. He falls so completely for Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) he doesn’t care that she’s flirting with an old friend at their wedding dinner, or failing to reply to feverish missives sent while conquering Egypt. 

It's the slyest of ideas to make Napoleon and Josephine’s convoluted sex life and marriage the backdrop to his relentless militarism. When he finds out about an affair she's having, he immediately leaves Egypt for France. Too late: her dalliance is front page news. He throws her out, takes her back in almost immediately. When he becomes emperor, it’s an aphrodisiac so heady that he can’t even form sentences; he just turns up in her dressing room and hums hornily. There’s also the growing problem of the lack of an heir, a situation in which everyone from Napoleon’s advisors to his formidable mother are involved. 

Phoenix, brilliantly and unexpectedly, plays the man as an occasional genius and a consistent dolt (“Destiny has brought me this lamb chop” is his wittiest salvo). This is a far cry from Abel Gance’s Napoleon in the 1927 silent film, leading the crowd in the first singing of the Marseillaise. Instead, you get a petulant man-child asking the British emissary: “You think you’re so great just because you have boats?” Napoleon has an instinctive feel for warfare; as he himself says, he just knows where to place a cannon. He’s awkward and brusque in all his other dealings, which sometimes serves him well (he brushes past niceties that would’ve held others back) but also means that Josephine ends up his only friend, even after they’re divorced. Their bond is surprising and touching, born out of self-preservation (on her part) and lusty fascination (on his) but growing to include concern and tenderness. Kirby is terrific as the acidic, intelligent queen, playing Hepburn to Pheonix’s stolid Tracy. 

Scott runs through Napoleon’s biggest hits: Toulon, Egypt, Moscow. Austerlitz is the centrepiece, an extended battle in the snow, Napoleon systematically outthinking the Austro-Russian army. It’s as stunning as anything in Gladiator (2000), but Scott has changed as a filmmaker: he has little use for heroes now. Pheonix’s Napoleon is a cold fish—his victories are cerebral but uninvolving. The Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) is even colder, turning Waterloo into a hilarious sodden chess game of military strategy and lack of charisma. 

One of the famous unmade films is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’, which he planned for years but couldn’t get off the ground. It’s weirdly fitting that Scott’s Napoleon has much in common with a period film Kubrick did make: Barry Lyndon (1975). Both films are mocking, ironic, unimpressed by the petty politics of late 18th and early 19th century European high society. Though his playing field is much smaller, Barry is not dissimilar to Napoleon, a resourceful dullard of (relatively) modest birth who stumbles through high society. But there’s a crucial difference. A tension exists in Kubrick’s film, between the compositions like oil paintings, the perfectly chosen costumes and mansions and classical pieces, and the dull advance of its protagonist. In Scott's film, there's no pathos or incidental beauty. The joke is always on Napoleon. This makes it more fun, and also more disposable.  

Also read: ‘No Bears’: Autofiction at the border

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