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‘Napoleon’: Ridley Scott’s Portrait of an Emperor as a Total Douchebag

The Gladiator director and Joaquin Phoenix turn an epic saga of love and war into a difficult-man drama. It almost works.

Napoleon review

Aidan Monaghan/Apple TV+

“All art is autobiographical,” Federico Fellini once said. “The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” No one would accuse Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s two-and-a-half-hour epic (that’s the theatrical cut’s running time, mind you; there’s a four-hour version waiting in the wings as well) about the French dictator’s rise and fall, of being thinly veiled autofiction in period dress. You sure as hell wouldn’t call it a pearl, either. Starting with the French revolution and ending with Monsieur Bonaparte’s no-bang-all-whimper exit from this mortal coil, the director’s sweeping, swaggering, occasionally stumbling history lesson is nothing more than an attempt to conjure up the road-show movie magic of yesteryear. There are corpse-strewn battlefields, a cast of thousands, corsets galore, and expository intertitles in fancy-pants cursive. It has images that make you wish the big screen was even bigger, so as to properly encompass their scale and scope, and a pomp and circumstance that screams prestige even when the film itself can’t seem to conjure it.

But there’s also a simmering sense of admiration over the “Little Colonel” who commanded big armies that seeps out of Napoleon. And it’s palpable enough to make you wonder if, hidden throughout this portrait of an emperor, there aren’t hints of self-portrait as well. We’re talking about a man who came from modest means; who knew he was destined for greater things, then willed said destiny into being when opportunities arose; and who turned a mixture of strategic intelligence, second-nature leadership skills, grudge-holding and an instinct for grand gestures into a recipe for victory, all the better to flip the bird to his disbelievers. That man has now made a movie about Napoleon, and there are moments when you can imagine the legendarily bullish, indefatigable 85-year-old director staring at the aspirational autocrat at the center of his mammoth canvas and thinking to himself: Game recognizes game. (It opens wide on November 22nd.)

Napoleon Bonaparte has fascinated filmmakers for decades, of course, and he’s been the subject of both a contender for the Greatest Movie Ever Made (Abel Gance’s brilliant, go-for-broke 1927 Napoléon) and the Greatest Movie Never Made (Stanley Kubrick’s famously aborted Bonaparte project starring Jack Nicholson). He contains multitudes, which is why Sir Ridley has made not one but three movies about Napoleon — they just happen to be packaged as a single entity.

The first is like something out of a time machine, transporting us back not so much to the 1790s but the 1960s, when theaters were filled with stories of bold gentlemen sporting bolder hats, riding horseback across widescreen tundras. Scott has always had both a knack and a weakness for old-school epics, whether they were in or out of fashion: What are Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, or Exodus: Gods and Kings but attempts to channel his inner David Lean? For much of Napoleon‘s first half, the director, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and the production team go big, staging lavish banquets, battles, and crowd-filled sequences like Marie Antoinette’s beheading that brim with retro brio. This is Bonaparte’s “rise” period, and the film strives to match its subject’s growing sense of self-importance. (If not always his vision — the first big set piece, Napoleon’s nighttime siege at Toulon, is so dark that it puts House of the Dragon‘s dim skirmish to shame.) It’s like Scott decided to return to his debut, 1977’s The Duellists, and supersize everything.

Behind every great man is an even greater woman, and it’s around the time that Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine lock eyes at a party that Scott’s second film — a cockeyed romance, veering unsteadily between stirring love story and stewed sex comedy — begins threading its way through the spectacle. Having established Bonaparte’s lust for glory, and introducing the widowed Josephine as both an obscure object of desire and an equally committed striver, the movie begins to turn a punch-drunk eye to their overall lust for each other. She first seduces him by lifting her skirt and telling him that “if you look down, you will see a surprise”; later, he communicates his carnal desire by crawling under tables, and braying and stamping his “hoof” like the world’s horniest horse.

Even if you’ve become inured to the bawdy escapades of rutting aristocrats onscreen, there’s something particularly bonkers about the carnal communion between the First Consul of the French Republic and his First Lady. It’s not an amour fou so much as amour WTF? You can’t say that Phoenix, displaying his characteristic intensity, or Kirby, who knows how to play to the camera for maximum effect (few contemporary actors can do more with simple eye contact), don’t commit to these moments. On the contrary, they lean into the loony aspects of these love scenes in such a dogged way that you wonder whether the line between perverse and hilarious is, in fact, invisible. Power is an aphrodisiac. So, apparently, is literal horseplay and the discreet display of a future royal hoo-hoo.

Scott gently sways between flexing his chops with well-choreographed carnage, complete with loads of cannon-fire, gross bodily harm, eviscerated equines, saber-rattling, and saber-gutting — are you not entertained? — and flirting with the sort of mondo erotico that might reduce Zalman King to giggling fits. And then, out of the blue, there’s a shift. Napoleon has already proven he’s a military genius par excellence, overthrown the government of France, and declared himself a titan. Europe is practically his for the taking. And then, as he’s negotiating with the English, Napoleon whines, “You think you’re so great just because you have boats!”

Suddenly, Bonaparte isn’t even a boy-king. He’s a petulant toddler in a bicorne hat, a leader of men seemingly felled by low blood sugar. It would be the greatest line of dialogue in film history the film, except an even better one is right around the corner: After Josephine accuses her beloved of being fat, Napoleon agrees that he does indeed love his meals not wisely, but too well. Considering he’s achieved such greatness in such a comparatively short time, however, the dictator believes he’s earned the right to indulge in such excesses. “Destiny has brought me to this lamb chop!!!” he screams, and you remember why Phoenix’s range can encompass Johnny Cash, Jesus, the Joker, and “Joaquin Phoenix” (justice for I’m Still Here). What he does with that sentence isn’t just delirious. It’s damn near miraculous.

That’s the third film that’s been waiting within Napoleon, patient as a nest of vipers, to strike: The portrait of an emperor not just as an egotist or eccentric, but as a total fucking douchebag. Any whiff of Scott’s hero worship, inherent or otherwise, goes poof. And whether or not screenwriter David Scarpa (All the Money in the World) had purposefully planned to front-load the three-ring sound and fury in the spirit of traditional historical biographies or as a feint, both Scott and Phoenix certainly let that aspect of Napoleon shine through. Anger and bluster, bad decisions and overcompensation, not to mention an ill-advised attempt at relevance past a sales date — this is the political figurehead laid bare as an empty, broken vessel of ambition. (Sound familiar?) But it’s also as if Ben Affleck’s campy blond bro from The Last Duel suddenly decided to set the tone. Plus Phoenix’s performance starts to go from the prickly portrayals of jealousy over Josephine’s infidelities and the grandstanding of his successes in warfare into some excitingly unpredictable territory, and then it’s on to Waterloo and exile, failed revolts and fade to blacks.

Had these three films somehow managed to engage with each other, you could see Napoleon being a sort of grand summation of the body politic on Scott’s part. That last burst of gonzo energy somehow feels too little and too late, even when paired with an Alexander Nevsky-style battle on the ice, and what you’re left with isn’t a legacy, an insight into a complex Napoleon or even a treatise on how the ego of one can wreck the lives of many. Instead, you find yourself mulling over an incoherent epic, one whose shortcomings aren’t trying to make up for stature or status but arise from an uncertainty of perspective. You begin the film chuckling over the idea that Scott might see something of himself in this legendary tyrant. You leave wondering whether he just views this historical strongman as nothing more than an excuse to dress up actors and blow shit up.

From Rolling Stone US