RIDLEY SCOTT at his best can be an immersive filmmaker and with the opening of his latest feature Napoleon he manages to locate you in the middle of the Place de Revolution, 1793, where a wooden cart wheels one Marie Antoinette to the guillotine. Lovely little vignette with the queen (Catherine Walker) standing stoically while folks jeer and pelt her with rocks and rotting vegetables (a tomato stain marking her bosom like a scarlet letter). Some trouble fitting the stock onto her neck — these are the little details that help you believe the reality of her oncoming death, and when the executioner picks up the head by its locks and shakes it at the roaring crowd you watch the expression closely wondering if you might catch it blink (you don’t). Apocryphally, Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) stands in the sidelines, watching.
That’s about the last time you actually feel lost in the story Scott tries to tell, a relatively quiet, recognizably human moment the way the rest of the film isn’t. His concept (realized on paper by David Scarpa) is of a confident soldier and strategist constantly being undercut by his outsized ego and obvious enthrallment to Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby).
Ultimately, it’s standard biopic fare, well-staged battles inserted into scenes of a tumultuous rockstar marriage that feels more busy than passionate — sex is mostly doggie style rutting with a few unusual locations (under a dining table for one) tossed in, not especially imaginative. Vanessa Kirby is introduced sporting an intriguing punk ‘do which is the single most interesting facet of her performance; the role is sorely underwritten and the fact that Josephine was six years Napoleon’s senior doesn’t really come into play, unfortunately — she acts like she’s Napoleon’s master and commander but little develops from the few suggestive cues Kirby throws our way.
As the eponymous general turned emperor Phoenix doesn’t really turn on the charisma, opting to play an awkward insecure buffoon who on occasion manages to put on a scowl and look mysteriously authoritative. Scott and Phoenix make an effort to undercut the legend — this Napoleon watches impassively as revolting Royalists are treated to “a whiff of grapeshot”; cowers comically as government officials rush forward to overthrow him, then struts like a peacock when his soldiers respond with cocked rifles. Napoleon is a complex character, and the filmmakers do attempt to convey something of his contradictory nature; what would be appreciated is a sense that the opposing impulses actually come from the same person, that this isn’t just Phoenix clowning for one take, glaring for another. There’s a nice interlude with his mother Letizia (a sorely underused Sinead Cusack) who recruits a fictitious young sexual volunteer to prove Napoleon isn’t impotent (despite all the sex Josephine hasn’t given him an heir). Unraveling that knotty relationship might have helped explain the emperor’s hangups with older women but — someone mentioned a four-hour cut to stream on Apple; this feels more like a TikTok fragment carved out of a longer YouTube video waiting to be released.
The battles fare considerably better. The assault on Little Gibraltar in Toulon is a nicely staged amuse-bouche, served up with a side dish of horse blown spectacularly apart by cannonball (historically it was Napoleon who was wounded — bayonet to the thigh — not the horse). The battle of Waterloo is a suitably impressive climax: plenty of high-angle shots, possibly by drones, of vast fields and antlike men assembled in endless formations. Napoleon sends cavalry against Wellington’s square formations, a whirlwind of blue uniforms on horseflesh harrying the British soldiers, possibly the best battle sequences that money can buy.
More impressive are the guerrilla tactics used by Cossacks against French troops during Napoleon’s Russia campaign — draw soldiers into the woods with sniper fire, unsettle them with horrific tableaux of mutilated and desecrated French soldiers, finish them off in the midst of sylvan cathedrallike silence. When Napoleon, after occupying Moscow, wakes up the next day to step out of his quarters and finds the city torched by its own citizens, the burning orange buildings surround him with an intimidating impassivity — this is Napoleon at the height of his megalomania, confronted with an attitude even more massively monomaniac and dismissive of rational thinking than his.
Arguably the film’s visual climax occurs at Austerlitz, when Russian and Austrian troops are ambushed by French forces in hiding, then tricked onto treacherous ice and dropped into freezing water by cannonfire, wreathed in their own slowly twisting blood (details exaggerated — the supposed deep lake was actually ponds and the casualty count is likely two or three to at most 100 men, not 2,000 — but to be fair to Scott, Napoleon probably encouraged the exaggeration himself).
I get it; Scott is a Brit and likely not a fan of the French general and with Phoenix’s active collaboration was out to deflate the myth; would have thought with all the resources at his disposal the director might have made more effort to expand his subject — give us the scale and size of a leader who not only pulled a good chunk of the world to its knees but gave us the Napoleonic Code (the basis for the civil code in most countries of the world), developed a more centralized rationalized form of government, introduced higher education, established the study of Egyptology as we know it — and then cut him down to size.
Too ambitious? Stanley Kubrick might have pulled it off, and I don’t just mean his never-realized proposal; you see glimmers of what might have been in a number of his films, from the sumptuous costumes and candlelit interiors of his Barry Lyndon (adapting lenses commissioned by NASA to photograph the dark side of the moon) to the massive military formations that climaxed Spartacus (Roman ancestor to Napoleon’s battle squares) to the harrowing violence shot with magisterial authority in both Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick, no stranger to the marshaling of endless detail and vast resources, was perhaps the perfect filmmaker to realize the military genius onscreen — not as sure about Napoleon’s other accomplishments, but if anyone could do it Kubrick can.
But if we’re talking a Napoleon film that best approximates the prodigious nature of the man — that was already been done, back in 1927. Abel Gance’s Napoleon is as impressive as Scott’s for far less money, arguably as impressive as anything Kubrick has ever done. Gance begins his film with the boy in military school, engaged in a snowball fight. Napoleon at 12 years old leads his hopelessly outnumbered schoolmates in a pitched battle; they overwhelm their enemies through bravado and sheer ferocity. Gance matches the boy’s fervor with a barrage of effects, from wide landscapes to huge closeups, hurtling handheld footage, and (in the sequence climax) a series of cuts so swift and strobelike it sends your heart racing.
The snowball fight — which puts Scott’s entire war epic to shame — is merely the film’s amuse bouche. Gance proceeds to command his camera to do literally everything, from sitting astride a galloping horse to gliding over water (and sometimes underwater) to swinging like a pendulum over the French National Assembly, suggesting a political storm (which the director intercuts with Napoleon in a sailboat, negotiating a literal storm). Not content with shooting large arrays of soldiers he stretches the film frame itself, shooting not just with one camera but three, a prophecy of Cinemascope only more expressive (where Cinemascope usually projects a single image Gance would throw three, often tinted red, white, and blue [the colors of the French flag], often in violent counterpoint).
The film’s view of Napoleon may be even more simplistic than Scott’s — no English skepticism for this Frenchman — but one must remember Gance had originally proposed that this five-hour film be the first of six — a 30-hour epic, or more Napoleon than anything outside of a multivolume biography. Did Gance mean to insert darker threads in later installments? He certainly had the room.
Meanwhile we have Scott’s production which, for all its budget and historical revisionism, is a markedly timid effort, untouched by the taint of either genius or madness. Gance’s super-production is presently unavailable for streaming but folks are reportedly working on a seven-hour restoration, to be projected on a properly big screen. If I’m going to hold my breath for anything I’d hold it for that.