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In Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon,’ the Emperor Has No Clothes But Plenty of Ego

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A white man in 18th century military uniform and hat stands on high ground. Behind him, there is a desert landscape covered in thousands of troops and horses.
Joaquin Phoenix starring in Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ (Apple TV via AP)

For such a famed historical figure, Napoleon has made only fleeting appearances in movies since Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film.

Stanley Kubrick had grand designs for a Napoleon epic that went unmade. (Steven Spielberg is attempting to revive those plans as a series ). Napoleon and his bicorne hat — more icon of history than a real character — mostly only pops up in time-traveling odysseys like Time Bandits or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The party, though, is finally on in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Scott doesn’t do anything small, not even famously diminutive French emperors. And his two-hour-38-minute big-screen biopic serves up a heaping historical spectacle complete with bloody European battles and massive military maneuvers.

But don’t mistake Napoleon for your average historical epic. Our first sense that this may not be a grand glorification of a Great Man of history comes early in the film, when a 24-year-old Bonaparte leads the siege on the British troops controlling the port city of Toulon. When Napoleon, then a major, charges forward in the fight, he’s visibly terrified, even panting. He looks more like Phoenix’s anxious protagonist in Beau Is Afraid than the man who would become France’s Caesar. Napoleon doesn’t storm the gates so much as lurch desperately at them.

And for the rest of Scott’s film and Phoenix’s riveting performance, Napoleon’s actions are never much more complicated than that. He assumes power cavalierly. His coup d’état against the French Directory in 1799 is a ramshackle farce. He flings his armies around the continent without the slightest concern. He’s prone to petulant rages, screaming at the British: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

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Napoleon subscribes more to the Not-So-Great Man theory of history. This Napoleon isn’t extraordinary nor is he much of a man. He’s a boyishly impulsive, thin-skinned brute, careening his way through Europe and leaving battlefields of dead soldiers in his wake. When he, while on a campaign in Egypt, is informed over lunch that his wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) is having an affair back in Paris, he responds curtly to the messenger: “No dessert for you.”

For more than 200 years, characterizations of Napoleon have ranged from genius reformer born out of the French Revolution to marauding tyrant whose wars left three million dead. Napoleon, himself, helped shape his legacy while exiled on St. Helena with a self-serving memoir. Some of the titans of 19th century literature reckoned with him. Victor Hugo wrote Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he had grown “troublesome to God.” Tolstoy, in War and Peace, was less impressed, calling him, “that most insignificant instrument of history.”

In Napoleon, which begins with Marie Antoinette at the guillotine and ends with Napoleon on St. Helena where he died at age 51 in 1821, it’s startling how much disregard the movie has for its protagonist. Hollywood historical epics have traditionally leaned toward aggrandizement, not the undressing of fragile, deluded male egos who exclaim over dinner: “Destiny has brought me here! Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”

Here is a sweeping historical tapestry — no one does it better today than Scott — with a damning, almost satirical portrait at its center. That mix — Scott’s spectacle and Phoenix’s the-emperor-has-no-clothes performance — makes Napoleon a rivetingly off-kilter experience.

It’s not always a smooth mix. Phoenix’s characterization may at times have more in common with some of his past depictions of melancholy loners (The Master, The Joker) than any factual record of Napoleon. A quality like ambition, you’d think, would be prominent in depicting Napoleon. He was a notorious workaholic, meticulously organized and an energetic intellectual — little of which is present here, making Napoleon’s rise to power sometimes hard to fathom.

But that’s also part of the point of Napoleon, which surely has some contemporary echoes. There are plenty of enablers along the way (a highlight of the supporting cast is Paul Rhys as the scheming diplomat Talleyrand) as the film marches through major events like the fall of Robespierre, the 1799 coup, Napoleon making himself Emperor in 1804 and the triumphant Battle of Austerlitz. The last is Scott’s finest set piece in the film, ending in a rout of the Russian forces as they flee over a frozen pond while the bombardment of cannons plunges them into an icy grave.

But in David Scarpa’s screenplay, the real through line in Napoleon isn’t the string of battles leading up to the downfall we all know is coming at Waterloo. (There, Rupert Everett’s sneering Duke of Wellington enlivens the military tactics.) It’s Napoleon’s relationship with Joséphine that makes the main thread.

When he first sees her across a crowded party, he stands transfixed. Anyone would be. The slinky Kirby, sporting a pixie cut, rivals Phoenix for most potent presence in Napoleon. She has a complete hold on Napoleon, who turns out to be no more suave in the bedroom than he is among society. When he returns from Egypt furious from the well-publicized rumors of her infidelity, they have a prolonged fight that ends with her turning the tables. “You are nothing without me,” she tells him, as he cowers, happily. “Say it.”

There’s a version of the film that could be wholly focused on their dynamic. Joséphine is omnipresent for a long stretch — he writes her constantly from the battlefront in letters narrated to us — but Napoleon never quite finds its balance in cutting between their life together and the military exploits. Scott is expected to release a four-hour director’s cut on Apple TV+ after the film’s theatrical run, which may offer a more calibrated version.

But the 85-year-old Scott — himself a symbol of ceaseless ambition — has made a film that, like his previous The Last Duel, is a provocative takedown of male power. Scott has made plenty of brawny, swaggering epics in his time — including Gladiator, with an Oscar-nominated Phoenix as the Roman emperor Commodus. But even though not everything in Napoleon coheres, it’s appealingly destabilizing. In one of the film’s final images, Napoleon and his hat are in silhouette as he slumps to his death like a keeling ship, going down.

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‘Napoleon’ hits theaters nationwide on Nov. 22, 2023.

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