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History lessons

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Accidentally a Comedy?

It’s a portrayal so undignified that I almost expected ABBA’s “Waterloo” to play over the credits.

Courtesy of Apple TV+
Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in “Napoleon”

Two centuries and change ago there lived a man who formulated the legal code that more than half the nations on earth still use today, who dissolved the millennium-old Holy Roman Empire and cleared the way for the unification of Germany and Italy, who sold over 800,000 square miles of land to the United States and transformed the geography and demography of North America forever, who emancipated the Jews across much of Europe and offered them citizenship and access to urban and public life, who planted the seeds of modern nationalism everywhere from Poland to Greece to the Arab world, who commissioned or sponsored the great civic monuments and art museums of Paris that still draw tourists by the millions.

He inspired liberation movements throughout the European continent even as he reimposed slavery in the French Caribbean, revolutionized the art of war in an instantly legendary campaign across Northern Italy, invaded Spain and ultimately triggered the independence of most of Latin America. He embodied, like no one else, the meritocratic ideals of the Enlightenment and a generation of men and women who defied traditional social constraints to rise on sheer talent. As a young Hegel wrote to a friend after witnessing the Emperor of France with his own eyes, this was “an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

Absolutely none of the above is covered in Ridley Scott’s new biopic, Napoleon, which nevertheless does find opportunities in its two-and-a-half-hour run time to repeatedly suggest that its subject, played by Joaquin Phoenix, might have been lousy in bed. This isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw; any of these accomplishments could be the basis for its own meaty production, and the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is simply too rich a topic for any single film. Editorial calls must be made, and Scott has made his (supposedly a four-hour director’s cut looms); here is one interpretation of Bonaparte among thousands, and it doesn’t claim to be definitive. Scott does a decent job of fitting in the main beats of an impossibly busy life, aided by his decision to have it not mean much of anything.

At the very least, Napoleon looks spectacular, like a series of Jacques-Louis David canvases brought to life. Scott whisks us from the guillotines of revolutionary Paris to the pyramids of Egypt, from the abandoned Moscow Kremlin to the remote tropical island of St. Helena, from the icy lakes of Austerlitz to the muddy fields of Waterloo. On one level, this is an adventure movie: We experience the ultimately delusional sense of limitlessness that possessed one of history’s greatest adventurers. If you buy a ticket hoping to see some gorgeously stylized early-nineteenth-century warfare, you’ll get your money’s worth. Meanwhile, everything about the sets, costumes, cinematography, art design, and score suggest a somber Hollywood historical epic, the kind of movie one might expect to contend with Oppenheimer or Killers of the Flower Moon (both of which are superior works of art) for Best Picture in a few months.

But then there are the dialogue and the performances, above all Phoenix’s, which suggest a different genre altogether: high camp. At the critics’ screening I attended, there were regular snickers at a film that isn’t being marketed as a comedy—and yet I suspect that laughter is the reaction Scott is going for. Napoleon doesn’t make a lot of historical arguments, but it does have a perspective on its title character: It sees him not as a genius or a modernizer or a meritocrat, but as an arrogant, vain, bratty, ultimately pitiful little autocrat whose zeal for greatness cost far too many men their lives.

Perhaps this is the perspective that Scott, an 85-year-old Englishman, learned in school; certainly the script (written by David Scarpa, who previously collaborated with Scott on All the Money in the World) seems to have more respect for the Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who handed Bonaparte his final defeat, than it does for Bonaparte himself. Wellington, played by Rupert Everett, describes Bonaparte as ill-mannered “vermin” ahead of the Battle of Waterloo, and by that point the audience has every reason to agree, having watched Phoenix bumble his way through dozens of awkward and embarrassing set pieces.

Much of the awkwardness centers around Bonaparte’s relationship to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which provides most of the script’s dramatic heft. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film presents Josephine’s genitalia as the driver of a whole era of world history (10 minutes in, Kirby channels Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and from then on Bonaparte is under her spell). Phoenix’s Bonaparte is motivated entirely by overcompensation for sexual inadequacy, which is neither creative nor persuasive, but at least it scans in the context of the film. It’s far less clear what motivates Josephine—status? love? lust? money?—but she does make for a plausible object of desire, a haughty dominatrix who cuckolds Bonaparte into invading most of Europe.

Phoenix wears his uniform well and plays Bonaparte with the weirdness and comic timing demanded of him, but neither he nor the script offers any explanation of why the whole world was mesmerized by this man. He seems to possess neither intellect nor charisma; even his greatest battlefield victories seem to happen almost in spite of him. In more intimate settings, he comes across as ridiculous. “I enjoy food! Destiny has brought me this lamb chop,” Bonaparte proclaims over dinner, defending himself against Josephine’s barbs about his expanding waistline. It’s unclear why he would inspire either fear or love in anyone, from fellow rulers to the soldiers under his command. While I didn’t expect Scott to actually depict the drafting of the French civil code on screen, he might have portrayed Bonaparte as capable of doing such a thing.

Maybe this is churlish. If you simply turn your brain off, Napoleon is kind of a blast; Russell Crowe, in another historically dubious Scott production, asks a crowd of cheering spectators, “Are you not entertained?” and I must admit I was. Napoleon certainly hews closer to the historical record than Gladiator, an entirely fictitious story used as an excuse to recreate the look and feel of the Roman Empire. What liberties Napoleon takes with the facts, and there are many, are of no concern to Scott, who has already told professional historians raising quibbles over accuracy, “Get a life.” Fair enough! Every biopic is entitled to some dramatic license; the larger issue with Napoleon is that it has so little meaningful to say about its subject or his era.

It’s possible to interpret the film as more of a commentary about our own era, given the current global surplus of vainglorious, petty, and comical would-be dictators. Maybe Scott is trying to warn audiences about the dangers of entrusting the fate of whole nations to such men. But if so, there are better historical parallels to draw upon than Bonaparte, a figure whose legacy is far too complex to reduce to such a tidy and obvious moral. There’s plenty to criticize Bonaparte for, and Scott certainly can’t be accused of glorification, but Phoenix’s almost mocking performance does a disservice not only to Bonaparte himself but to the millions who followed him into battle and the generations of artists, thinkers, and statesmen who found inspiration in his many durable achievements.

Instead we are left with a record of tragedy and folly, and a script that has no actual politics but de facto serves as a defense of the old aristocratic continental order that Bonaparte did so much to tear down. The film ends with Bonaparte’s death in exile, knowing that all of his grand ambitions have ended in failure. There is no hint that a generation later, all the revolutionary forces Bonaparte embodied and that his enemies repressed will explode across Europe and then the rest of the world—that when the audience exits the theater, it reenters a modern society that Bonaparte is as responsible as anyone for birthing.

Though Napoleon mostly avoids the cliché about Bonaparte’s physical stature, in all other respects it renders him as a small man, one who did nothing important besides win and then eventually lose some battles. It’s a portrayal so undignified that I almost expected ABBA’s “Waterloo” to play over the credits.