Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon,' Blown Apart
The 'Alien' director's latest bursts at the seams with ambition.
[This post contains spoilers for events that occurred two centuries ago.]
It is appropriate that Napoleon Bonaparte should inspire so many illustrious filmmakers to pursue ambitions beyond their reach. Utilizing camera and editing techniques decades ahead of their time, Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon is 5½ hours long, but was only the first in a proposed pentalogy that was ultimately never completed. Stanley Kubrick, the greatest director to ever live, spent the late ‘60s and early ‘70s working on a Bonaparte biopic of his own, which also never came to fruition (his efforts were detailed in the mammoth book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made), although aspects of it were reappropriated for Barry Lyndon.
The latest storied auteur to be felled by the Corsican-born French emperor and military commander is Ridley Scott. Like Bonaparte himself, Scott’s Napoleon is bursting at the seams with aspirations of greatness, some of which it realizes, some of which it does not. Even at 158 minutes, it feels truncated; there’s reportedly a 4½ hour director’s cut coming to Apple TV+ at some point in the future, and while it’s rare that I advocate for a movie to be longer, in this case, I suspect the extended run time will help. Napoleon has all the pieces of a great movie, but so many important details are grazed over that they don’t quite land the way they might if given more emphasis and room to breathe.
On a macro level, Scott, once again working with All the Money in the World screenwriter David Scarpa, presents Bonaparte’s tale as a darkly absurdist comedy that says something very grand - and cynical - about society and the ways in which history repeats itself (the movie borrows plenty from Kubrick, not least of all its general worldview). “People are driven by misery to revolution,” an opening block of text declares, “and brought back by revolution to misery.” The movie’s similarly palindromic structure opens and closes with the death of a leader, in between which we see power change hands no fewer than four times. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Indeed, we get no real sense of how all this political intrigue affects France’s hoi polloi - because the primary players don’t care: Surveying a room full of sabres confiscated from condemned royalists, Napoleon asks, “Did no one think to attach names to any of them?” “No,” replies the man tasked with overseeing these seized weapons, “there are no names.” We remember the rulers, Scott suggests, and not the ruled.
As for Napoleon himself (he’s played here by Joaquin Phoenix), Scott and Scarpa portray Bonaparte not as a brilliant tactician, but as a social climber who is in the right place at the right time to take advantage of all this civil unrest. The first adjective used to describe Napoleon, in that same opening text, is “ambitious.” We see, again and again, the importance of power to Napoleon - in his possessiveness of his wife, Josephine… in his imperiousness when dealing with other heads of state… in the way he’s susceptible to flattery… and even with regards to sex (upon learning he’s going to be king, Napoleon first bursts into pleased laughter, and then immediately goes to shtup Josephine). His arc is very much to ascend and descend the ladder of leadership. Before what will become his first major military victory, Napoleon is visibly nervous; his frenzied, labored breathing dominates the sound mix, and once engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, he is saved only by an ally’s intervention. By the story’s midway point, he is fat and content, declaring at the dinner table that “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop.” Near the end, he falls asleep on his feet in the middle of Waterloo. Hubris has become his fatal flaw.
Viewing Napoleon as a grim political satire naturally invites comparison to contemporary times. Watching the Sénat conservateur repeatedly devolve into riotous violence certainly feels relevant, and there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Bonaparte as he’s characterized here and a certain American would-be autocrat: egocentric, buffoonish, disinterested in statecraft, unwilling to take responsibility for his own mistakes, immature (Napoleon to a British ambassador before storming away like a moody adolescent: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”), and married to a woman who appears to see their relationship as one of convenience rather than love.
On a micro level, however, noting that Napoleon was ambitious and bumptious is about as insightful as saying that Mother Theresa was benevolent and Catholic. Scott and Scarpa don’t really drill down on what motors their protagonist’s ambition. His mother, Letizia (Sinéad Cusack), certainly seems cold and overbearing; at one point, Josephine tells Bonaparte that “You are nothing without me and your mother,” and in a letter to one of his brothers, Napoleon expresses concern that “our mother’s ambitions [for her sons] will be quashed.” But Letizia doesn’t physically appear in the movie until the end of the first hour. Her last scene arrives thirty minutes later, and she has roughly 120 seconds of screen time in total. She hardly seems like a looming presence.
Similarly, Napoleon laments how “those in power… only see us as Corsican ruffians unfit for higher office.” But this is yet more tell-don’t-show - any such prejudices against Napoleon are never dramatized.
Josephine, at least, gets a fleshed-out psychological profile. Portrayed by Vanessa Kirby with impressive nuance, we first meet Josephine after she’s one of 41,500 prisoners freed at the end of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.” Her hair shorn like Fantine in Les Misérables, a stupefied Josephine wanders home via deserted, desecrated streets - it looks like Paris has been through an apocalypse. Now a widowed single mother of two, she makes it clear to Napoleon, during their courtship, that she prostituted herself in prison in order to survive, and we get the distinct sense that she is continuing to do so by agreeing to marry him. In their numerous sex scenes, Napoleon furiously fucks his bored-looking wife from behind; only when cuckolding her husband does Josephine make love face-to-face. We have some understanding of where Josephine has been, and what motivates her to do whatever is necessary to never regress. Josephine, in other words, seems like a specific person, whereas Napoleon feels like a broad symbol.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Michael Broers, a Napoleon scholar who advised Scott on the film, reveals that the director was “particularly interested in battles.” Elsewhere in that same profile, author Michael Schulman notes that Scott “wasn’t big on biographies” of Napoleon. It’s not fair of me to speculate that Scott’s interest in making this movie was born largely out of a desire to stage multiple large-scale scenes of warfare, but… I suspect Scott’s interest in making this movie was born largely out of a desire to stage multiple large-scale scenes of warfare. This isn’t Scott’s first foray into grand historical epics (there’s also Gladiator, The Last Duel, Kingdom of Heaven, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood, and his first feature, The Duellists, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars), but even by his standards, Napoleon’s scenes of massive clashing armies are impressive in scope and visceral excitement. His portrayals of the Siege of Toulon, the Battle of Austerlitz, and Waterloo are almost as harrowing as Spielberg’s D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan. Some of Napoleon’s harshest critics have bemoaned the way it skims over important historical events - but it’s most severe shortcoming is the way it skims over the heart and soul of Bonaparte himself.