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NAPOLEON: Some Guts, No Glory

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonapartin the new movie about the French military commander
Columbia Pictures
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in the new movie about the French military commander

There’s an old maxim that you don’t go to the movies to learn history.

British director Ridley Scott, who turns 86 this Nov. 30, has had a glorious career making spectacle films, the heir to the big canvas films of David Lean, who made Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai that mined British history to examine the character of its fading empire, and the better of his contemporary, Richard Attenborough, who made A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi. I dropped in on Scott’s Napoleon, which opens in time for Thanksgiving weekend, and found scenes from a marriage.

In his early adwork, Ridley Scott mastered the discipline of the short, elegant, visual story. They were succinct, visually fluid narratives that flowed like a thrill -- the shadow of an airplane passing through the Share the Fantasy campaign he did for Chanel #5, or the Orwellian 1984 launch of Apple Macintosh. At his best, there’s a smooth cinematic intelligence in Scott’s visual universe of some 28 films to date: his breakout debut film The Duellists a low budget adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Duel, was also set in the Napoleonic era, followed by Alien in 1979, Blade Runner in 82, Thelma and Louise in 91, and the lesser but still engaging GI Jane, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, The Martian in 2015, and the slick but slight House of Gucci two years ago.

Scott’s later male characters have been less interesting than his early female characters — Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as Thelma and Louise were more compelling launching themselves off the planet in Scott’s mid-career 30 years ago than Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut was trying to make it back eight years ago in The Martian. It’s as if in Scott’s mid-80s, surely thinking about leaving the planet himself, the two futilities — the two Scott subjects that keep landing in a ditch, Feminism and Colonialism -- have fallen in on one another in screenwriter David Scarpa’s monumentally compressed history of a man at full power in this mid-life tranche of Napoleon.

The outsize Napoleon in life and in this story, however, doesn’t feel short. The film often stalls across two hours and 38 minutes for theaters, with a subsequent four-hour cut for streaming on Apple+. Joaquin Phoenix is his own referendum on casting choices, and I often like him, but not in his captain-cum-emperor. The decision -- or default, depending on what you think of Phoenix – to play flat and affectless doesn’t land well. The performance is meant to suggest Napoleon as an early Asperger’s genius, focused like a furnace when it comes to battle, and in the thick of it. Stressed emotionally on the battlefield at home, he’s a boy-man who tantrums at Josephine for failing to produce an heir and then lobs a lamb chop at her down the long table over the heads at a court dinner caught in a two-person food fight. Josephine calls him fat and beats him into submission with the line” You are nothing without me.” Which may be the one piece of contemporary cultural relevance that I like to think that Scarpa had to sell to Scott, who is most comfortable when the boys blow themselves up and the horses they rode in on smoky battlefields. Yet, Phoenix’s b-flat never really conveys anything but that.

By necessity Scarpa has compressed the history of the French Revolution and its aftermath. The numerous Wars of Coalition that fueled the rise and fall of Napoleon and France are represented by a few choice battles. Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and Talleyrand fly by, Tahar Rahim as Paul Barras opens the gateway for Napoleon to power and the end of the Reign of Terror. Napoleon loses at Waterloo, and it seems more like Sam Bankman-Fried losing at the latest Super Mario Bros Wonder.

These sweeping bio epics are supposed to be about size, have size, or here, getting cut down to size. Napoleon has a face-to-face with a mummy in an open casket – I’m no Egyptologist and had to look it up, King Khufu or Khafre? -- at a quick pit stop at the Giza pyramids (on the campaign to cut off British trade routes to India). Indiana Jones may have ruined us for Egypt, however, for generations. Just seeing Phoenix at the Pyramids reinforces that Scott hasn’t jumpcut us into the wonder of a man taking his measure at Giza. Leaning into the coffin —for what, a smooch? – this Napoleon plays it for a laugh as a stunt sequence. The film’s sense is that our sphinx meets the original.

Post-Revolutionary France may well have been made to feel great again by Napoleon, and in Scarpa-Scott the captain comes to the coronation favoring the Roman olive leaf crown over the French chandelier. But the strategy all along has been ridicule royale to cut a working-class hero down to size, which is why when this Napoleon then pivots to hoist the French royal crown high into the air, it feels like we’re all at the World Cup. Napoleon as mini-sphinx cuts the battlefield myth down to his real size, which seems to be the project here, watching a myth wrestling with the sense Scarpa says Napoleon had of his illegitimacy at home en palais.

Though this is by design, Scott and Scarpa’s film is at war with itself: do history or dish? Action or passion? Napoleon and Josephine battle at home as cases of male arrested development and female forbearance and erasure. The Scott - Scarpa Napoleon at home is the costume drama version of our own recent past, when an emotionally hobbled dictator has a self-interested, stay-at-home glamorpuss for a wife, while her husband summons vast numbers of working and poor men to die for his vision. The difference between now and then is that while both Napoleon and Josephine fail fatally in life and here, they were at least totally sentient and competent.

Vanessa Kirby as Josephine in Napoleon
Apple TV/Columbia Pictures
Vanessa Kirby as Josephine in Napoleon

After her Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby, as Josephine, has got simmering wild girl down to an art, and is a more engaging character than Phoenix’s Napoleon. She’s the one modernist in the inner circle and gives the script a strategy that Scarpa builds the story around: modern joke, royalist history. Josephine wastes no time taking lovers when Napoleon is out and about, where in bed he scans the front page of the local broadsheet rag. Front and center is a cuckold cartoon beneath the headline, “Boney’s Old Bird Caught Out of the Nest Again.” Modern joke in royalist times -- the NY Post has always been with us.

Kirby’s Josephine enters every scene with Napoleon with a recurring, incredulous “Oh, c’mon, you can’t really be serious” disbelief that goes to the film’s implicit assumption about all would-be emperors. Cut to various battlefield detente meetings between Napoleon and his kingly enemies in Austria and Russia, and it’s not unlike the current day MAGA crowd’s suspicion that the world is run by chummy, self-serving, enemy brats, who pause for flutes of champagne while getting the little people out there just over the ridge to die for the Empire.

Delegating the home front to Scarpa, it seems, Scott comes to Napoleon for the battle sequences, of course, the residue of which plays hollow, as if you don’t quite believe the magnitude of the scenes, that the armies are populated with thousands of believers, particularly in the long shots by Dariusz Wolski, who shot Scott’s The Martian, Prometheus, All the Money in the World and House of Gucci. His Napoleon at least ventures from England to Malta for scenery.

You go willingly with Phoenix’s affectless captain and the confidence in his barely perceptible nod that he’ll ambush the witless, drunken British and seize the port of Toulon. A decade and a half later at Austerlitz, in the best of the battle sequences, it’s a weary Napoleon, who drives the remnants of the Russian and Austrian armies out onto a frozen pond and with barely a flick of the wrist unleashes cannon fire that breaks the ice and drowns their entire army on horseback, a sequence by editor Claire Simpson that whips back and forth from above and below the iceline, streaming clouds of blood into the water that matches the advertising Ridley Scott’s ever fluid, seductive, visual meld of beauty and danger.

There’s even talk in the film of eradicating the “vermin,” the word of the week around here, though in the film the vector of its direction is different: not downward aimed at the impure restless class but across the channel, by Wellington denouncing the French emperor-nuisance. Rupert Everett’s pinch-faced Wellington refers to Napoleon as the vermin that must be routed and stamped out, “So that we can all sleep again,” presumably under a British boot. The timely appearance of “vermin” here is an out of the blue piece of marketing luck for a script that started some time back. But artists have social antenna, it’s in the job description to be an early warning system, and score one for Scarpa intuiting that on the week of the film’s release, we’d be drowning in vermin talk on CNN.

There’s not much sense in this Napoleon of why he fails, of whether there’s a fatal relationship between the Emperor Napoleon and the cuckold, just that it's time. The defeated, affectless Phoenix lands in Elba, is incited by jealousy to grab a frigate, sail to Antibes and then famously march to Paris up what is now the Route Nationale 7 that goes through Cannes, where this film will never go, turning the troops to his cause along the way before being outsmarted and routed finally at Waterloo.

Phoenix has made a specialty out of playing small, desperate characters with a visible wound, teapots all fending off blowing apart. The idea of casting him as Napoleon seems better than the result. He was a super Joker, the anti-Napoleon. He was sublime in James Gray’s Two Lovers as a damaged, 45-year-old, Jewish failure living with his parents above their dry cleaning business in Brighton Beach. His unhinged Freddie Quell matched Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s spellbinding cult demi-god in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and he was impossibly sweet as Johnny, the itinerant NPR reporter savoring the new joy of showing his nephew the world in  C’mon, C’mon. Phoenix’s Napoleon has to be big when he enters his final exile on British-held St Helena in 1815, but sighs and settles in like a kid in time-out. Somehow, our own one-time Napoleon, Douglas Macarthur, managed to just fade away but not sacrifice his stature.

The personal end in this Napoleon is a near film quote of Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, sitting in his garden in Sicily, and slumping off screen left, oof…thunk. But there’s never been any size here. There’s little fascination, no rethinking what you thought you knew, no gratitude for a peek inside the empty tent and no loss at the end of it all.

Abel Gance’s five-hour three screen silent 1927 Napoleon
Harlan Jacobson
Abel Gance’s five-hour three screen silent 1927 Napoleon

Abel Gance’s five-hour three screen, silent 1927 Napoleon, which I saw at Radio City Music Hall courtesy of the restoration by Francis Coppola in 1980, remains in memory as a celebration of the big imagination of cinema, how both the 20th Century form of the film’s risk everything technology matched its 19th Century outsize content to remind France of its greatness. In English, Scott’s Napoleon certainly won’t make France great again, nor America, when it hits theaters this week and then drizzles down the Apple stream a week or so after. To quote somebody, I forget who: “Sad.”

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.