The rise and fall of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix), his battles and his love for Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).
In an interview with the “New Yorker,” Ridley Scott explained what interested him about Napoleon Bonapparte: on one hand there are the battles, on the other hand “who was this guy and why was he vulnerable? Because of this woman named Joséphine.“ In Scott’s two and a half hour cinema version – the four hour version will arrive on Apple TV+ soon – the focus is primarily on the battles. There were surely other aspects of Bonaparte that would’ve been interesting to explore: the difficulty of enforcing bourgeois jurisdiction and administration against feudalistic societies, Napoleon's progressive legislation of the “Cinq Codes” in Europe, which is still largely constitutive of the rule of law today. This contrasts with Napoleon's reintroduction of slavery in the French colonies. However, Scott is neither interested in the progressive nor the reactionary aspects of Napoleon.
In the defense of Paris against the royalist uprising of 13 Vendémiaire, when 25,000 royalist soldiers tried to storm the convent and Napoleon took over the capital's garrison of just 5,000 men and was declared the "Savior of the Republic," Scott shows it as Napoleon's massacre of angry, barely armed civilians. Scott clearly places his protagonist on the roguish side of history here. The Napoleonic Wars are solely imperial conquests for Scott. It doesn't matter that they might have something to do with the conflict between the first European republic and feudalism.
Ridley Scott directs a purely cinematic story, with great, thrilling, and amusing set pieces like Napoleon’s opulent self-crowning as “the emperor of the French,” which Scott shows as a pompous farce. The battles are the absolute highlights of the film, from the risky conquest of Toulon to the episode where Scott has Napoleon shoot at the pyramids during the Egyptian expedition, to the virtuoso stagings of the Battle of Austerlitz and Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. As a director of battles, Ridley Scott is not inferior to LORD OF THE RINGS director Peter Jackson, and in the battles he also shows an interest in recreating historical tactics, like Napoleon's infantry squares tactic, used to repel enemy cavalry attacks which is implemented at Waterloo by Wellington (Rupert Everett).
Despite the 158 minute running time, the staging of the relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais seems quite rushed in the theatrical version, and the character of Joséphine is rather unfocused. It is possible that the longer TV version, which will be available on Apple+ after the theatrical release, will be more dedicated to the relationship. Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon is a man who is unsure around women, sometimes in a brutal way, sometimes seeming like an insecure schoolboy. He meets Joséphine at a ball, where she presents her “coiffure à la victime.” The short hair fashion among French aristocrats is a play on the hair of the executed people that was shaved short at the back of their necks, intended to ensure that the blade of the guillotine hit the right spot. Joaquin Phoenix shows a man who doesn’t know how to appeal to Joséphine, falling back on the self-staging of military masculinity. Phoenix does this with excellent timing, virtuoso acting, and humor. He hops from one foot to the other, doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands or his gaze, and finally falls back to adopting a laboriously manufactured military pose. The few sex scenes are short and staged as brutally as they are chaste.
NAPOLEON works as a spectacle and also as a satire on the military character which Klaus Theweleit described in “Männerphantasien” (trans. male fantasies). Those expecting a historically accurate portrait of the real figure are definitely in the wrong film. But Scott makes the two and a half hours appear too short rather than too long. NAPOLEON is definitely great cinema.
Translation: Elinor Lewy
USA 2023, 158 min
Genre: Historical Film, Biography
Director: Ridley Scott
Author: David Scarpa
DOP: Dariusz Wolski
Montage: Sam Restivo, Claire Simpson
Music: Martin Phipps
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Miles, Tahar Rahim, Ludivine Sagnier, Ian McNeice, John Hollingworth, Paul Rhys
- OV Original version
- OmU Original with German subtitles
- OmeU Original with English subtitles
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