REVIEW: ‘Napoleon’

Ridley Scott’s psychological portrait is… complex

Napoleon (Sony/IMDb)
November 27, 2023

The British director Ridley Scott has made an American film about the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. Reactions to Scott’s Napoleon divide in two ways. First, there is the division between the French and everyone else.

The French critics call this film an insult to historical veracity and national dignity. It neither shows nor tells the truth, because it is made by les Anglo-Saxons. Le Figaro calls Scott’s treatment of Napoleon and Josephine "Barbie and Ken under the Empire." In the magazine Le Point, the Bonaparte biographer Patrice Gueniffey complains that the film is "very anti-French and very pro-British." French GQ thinks that the American accents sound "deeply clumsy, unnatural and unintentionally funny"—much like Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon.

Then there is everyone else. Opinion among les Anglo-Saxons divides between those who prefer a film that tells rather than shows, and those who accept that Napoleon shows rather than tells, though it might not show enough. My opinion is that if you want a narrative that tells you about Napoleon, help yourself to the mountain of books about the French Revolution and Napoleon’s pan-European rampage. If you want a narrative that shows the aesthetic appeal of Rome and revolution, the nastiness of total war, and the hollowness of the cult of dictatorship, then watch this flawed gem of a movie.

Napoleon is a tortured love story, punctuated by six brutal battles. Or Napoleon is six tortured battles, punctuated by a brutal love story. Scott manages the rhythm of the romantic battles and military conquests with deceptive ease, merging the two in Napoleon’s image as a dictatorship merges the public and the private. French society is brutalized and desperate after the Revolution of 1789 and the mass executions of the Terror. Napoleon is brutal, a Corsican artillery officer who rises by the cannon. Joséphine de Beauharnais is desperate, a single mother whose aristocratic husband was guillotined in the Terror and who narrowly avoided the same fate.

As in Scott’s Thelma and Louise, the union of Napoleon and Joséphine is a grand alliance of the damaged and the doomed. Joaquin Phoenix specializes in awkward and inarticulate passions; recall Johnny Cash falling over his microphone or stuttering out his love for June Carter. Phoenix’s Napoleon is brooding, clumsy, and desperate. He puffs up a ladder to surprise the British garrison at Toulon in the first of his battles, fear all over his face. His sexual performance with Joséphine is comically perfunctory; it is clear she doesn’t much enjoy it. Yet once he’s on his horse, he’s firmly planted in the saddle, as though his pot belly has the weight of one of his cannon balls. Horse and rider swagger like a centaur, a mythical figure from Europe’s past and future. We see what Hegel saw when Napoleon passed him in the street at Jena. The emperor is an idea moving through history, marching to the rhythm of his mount and his inner drive.

This unstoppable force meets three immovable objects: Britain, Russia, and Joséphine. Like the female protagonists of Blade Runner and Alien, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) must fight for survival in a man’s world. The real Joséphine was six years older than Napoleon and much more sophisticated. Kirby is 14 years younger than Phoenix, but Scott shows their power dynamic in a single, economical scene. When Napoleon tries to boss Joséphine, she turns the tables and makes him admit that he is nothing without his lover and his mother.

Napoleon’s actual mother flits in and out in widow’s weeds. Her feelings about Napoleon are shown with similar efficiency. When she enters the room, she seems more interested in talking to his brother-in-law Charles. When Joséphine cannot give Napoleon a son, it is his mother who arranges an alternative. Though Napoleon’s public scenes are jaunty marches and patriotic ballads in waltz time, the inner melody is a Corsican, Godfather-like refrain with a wordless baritone minor-key humming. This too reduces the little emperor to size.

These issues of command and potency recur in Napoleon’s needy encounters with the hereditary emperors he seeks to emulate and destroy, and with the fellow professional soldier from the provinces who will deliver the coup de grâce, the Duke of Wellington. The Austrian emperor Francis II (thin in real life, but here a cowardly fat fop) is forced to accept Napoleon’s friendship after being defeated at Austerlitz. But the Russian emperor Alexander I is deceptively fresh-faced and soft-handed. Alexander grasps the nature of power more surely than Napoleon does. He reneges on their alliance, cuckolds Napoleon with Joséphine, draws him into the Russian winter, then burns Moscow rather than allow Napoleon to claim victory. Napoleon’s nemesis, Wellington (Rupert Everett), also has the great dictator’s measure. Joséphine is wearily familiar with Napoleon’s preferred amorous approach, a Mussolini-like surprise attack over a desk. Wellington knows Napoleon cannot resist a frontal attack in the field and leads him to his Waterloo.

"It is generally after long civil troubles that tyranny is established, because it offers the hope of shelter to all the exhausted and timorous factions," Germaine de Staël wrote in Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1817). "Bonaparte said of himself with reason that he could play admirably upon the instrument of power." He was, de Staël wrote, "attached to no principles, nor restrained by any obstacles." He rose to power because of his amoral willingness "to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, to deprave public opinion by sophisms, and to give the nation war for an object instead of liberty."

Modern fate leads the leader to fulfill his image. Like Johnny Cash learning to love from the older June Carter, Napoleon acquires the vocabulary that explains him to others, and thus himself, from Joséphine and his propaganda. He speaks of his "destiny" being greater than his will, and of himself as the embodiment of France, as if trying out a new language. When he first meets Joséphine at a party, she takes his uniform for fancy dress; as Tolstoy concludes in War and Peace, Napoleon is the empty image of power, a small man in a big hat who cannot control the forces of history. When Napoleon invades Egypt, he writes to Joséphine that he marches in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; history, whether ancient history or the history that he is making, is theater, a spectacle of scripts and costumes.

Scott’s Napoleon is not a Great Man. He is a Napoleon for our diminished and diminishing times: deprived of self-understanding but intuitively fluent in self-promotion, visually overwhelming but much stronger on feelings than facts, posthumous and post-historical, a dynamo best understood in tableaux. This is a psychological Napoleon, not a political one; a Napoleon of the imagination, not the battlefield. And that brings us to the flaw in the diamond. Scott denies Napoleon the moments that, in the Napoleonic calculus of full-frontal force, should show his greatness.

Max Weber divided authority into three types: charismatic, bureaucratic, and traditional. No one is going to make a movie about Napoleon’s swift switch from charismatic to bureaucratic styles, in which the revolution’s redeemer writes a new law code for much of Europe. Scott has made a movie about Napoleon’s war to supplant the kind of traditional authority that the revolution made impossible—a struggle which, as Carlyle saw, would generate modern Caesars. This is the disillusioned image in our rearview mirror. It was also the image in the mind of revolutionary France, and the disillusion that produced Napoleon.

Visually, Napoleon’s palette is desaturized. The light has gone out of Paris; the heart of the revolution is gray like its stone. The tricoleur is omnipresent, yet its blue is close to black, its red the color of dead roses or dried blood. These washed-out, heightened contrasts are the image of Weltschmerz, as though the dynamism and drama of revolutionary France is a rerun of the Classical prequel its artists and demagogues sought to revive. No wonder the French critics loathe this film. Scott shows what Walter Benjamin meant when he wrote that fascism is "the aestheticization of politics."

Scott demystifies Napoleon by turning the imagery of power against Napoleon’s drama of dynamism. Napoleon plays Caesar when he appoints himself emperor, but Scott fixes him in a coronation tableau evoking Veronese’s The Family of Darius Before Alexander; one kind of imperial surrender is reenacted as another. In reality, Napoleon and his mother were at odds; she had opposed him in a sibling dispute. His mother boycotted the coronation, but Napoleon ordered Jacques-Louis David to paint her in, higher than the Pope. In Scott’s telling, she watches from the front row, next to David, who sketches the image of power.

When Napoleon, attempting another dynamic breakout, divorces the barren Joséphine so that he can father a son, he is fixed in the cold light and sharp lines of one of David’s parables of Roman austerity. The modern imposture is diminished before the ancient template. "It is in the interior movements of the Revolution, however, where we may observe the empire of vanity, the desire of ephemeral applause," Madame de Staël observed, "that rage to make a figure, that passion innate in every Frenchman; of which compared with us, strangers have only a very imperfect idea."

The palette shifts as Napoleon rises, then falls. Toulon’s whitened stone and withering sun are from an Orientalist tableau; they fade to white, as though the young Napoleon is overwhelmed by his vision of power. The clarity of the initial palette dissolves in the Battle of Austerlitz, where we see Napoleon visibly excited as his plan to destroy the Austrian Army succeeds. When his cannons catch the retreating Austrians on the ice, the water is pink with blood, and the gold and blue finery of uniforms sinks into the freezing murk.

The folly of invading Russia then leads east in 1812, across the pale green of the Polish plains to the Pyrrhic slaughter at Borodino, through the rains that leave his men’s plumage sagging and into the empty green marble interior of the czar’s palace at Moscow. The city is empty, the palace a stage without actors, deserted but for the pigeons who deposit their white disdain on the throne where Napoleon, with similar disdain, lounges dissatisfied and, though he does not yet know it, defeated by the Russian winter and an enemy whose pitilessness outstrips his own. The conqueror who asked the pharaoh’s mummified corpse for advice in the bracing light of the Egyptian desert is already entombed alive in the damp marble of legend.

At Waterloo, the rain delays the battle, allowing the British to hold off the French until the Prussians arrive. The dreams of Empire sink in the Belgian mud. This is much the same as the green and brown of England. When Wellington and Napoleon meet after Napoleon’s surrender, Napoleon tells Wellington that he thinks he’ll enjoy exile in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds. Wellington informs him that his life will end as it began, alone on an island. Napoleon’s cruel and unusual punishment is to be an ex-emperor who remains the king of all he surveys because his kingdom is little more than a gray rock in the gray ocean.

The price of this disillusioned vision is that Napoleon’s epic welding of charismatic and bureaucratic leadership in his military combination of heroism and planning goes unexplained. We see nothing of the naval defeats that shaped Napoleon’s conflict with Britain and confined him in Europe. We see only a glimpse of Napoleon’s biggest and most costly battle, Borodino, where the Russians sapped Napoleon’s army as it advanced east. Then again, we have Peter Weir’s Master and Commander and Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace for those.

The climacteric at Waterloo was in fact an anticlimax. Apart from being Napoleon’s second-most costly battle, Waterloo was his final defeat, the sudden end of his last dynamic breakout from Elba and the Hundred Days restoration that followed, and the terminal detumescence of revolutionary ardor. Scott’s depiction of Waterloo bears little resemblance to events, but the sense of anticlimax is historically accurate, if not cinematically intentional. Napoleon’s relationship with Joséphine peaks in the second reel, too.

Directors and dictators share a drive to organize large numbers of people around an imperious vision, and dictators, like directors, tend toward public histrionics and private eccentricities. We might expect lots of films about dictators, and quite a few good ones. But there aren’t. There are, however, a lot of films about Winston Churchill.

The public love a spectacle and frequently acclaim dictators when they come to power. But the third reel of dictatorships tends to be disastrous, if not shameful. The facts of Napoleon’s real-life contraction undermine the expansive feelings of Scott’s treatment. In this sense, Scott gets closer to the truth of his subject than any other portrayal of Napoleon on film, because his subject is not so much Napoleon as the theatrics of modern power. The lesson in seeing Napoleon’s final diminution on St. Helena, an exile hiding in illusions and false memories, is that we should distrust the mass medium. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le cinema.

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.