Napoleon Is a Big, Messy Pageant, With Joaquin Phoenix as Its Dad-Humor Emperor

Napoleon Is a Big, Messy Pageant, With Joaquin Phoenix as Its Dad-Humor Emperor

Trust no one—not even me—who tries to tell you Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is any good. Good is perhaps not the word to use. Napoleon is a sprawl, a messy pageant, a little crazy and yet perhaps not crazy enough. Its color palette is both grand and muted, like a newly printed map distressed to fool you into thinking it’s an antique. It’s sometimes boring and pretentious and often a little silly, almost to the point—almost—of parody. But even with all its flaws tallied and noted like battlefield casualties, there’s still something mildly compelling about it. Maybe it’s just that Joaquin Phoenix makes for one genuinely weird-ass Napoleon. In one of his finest, oddest moments, his Napoleon, with an invisible stomp of his little foot, gives a British ambassador what-for: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

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It’s all kind of fun, if you can make it through the snoozy parts. The movie opens with sheer madness, and an opportunity: It’s 1793 and Marie Antoinette is led to the guillotine; after her head plunks into the basket, one of her executioners holds the bloody prize aloft. (That murmur you hear is millions of fifth-grade boys saying, “Cool!”) Into this breach of bloodthirsty disorganization steps young Napoleon Bonaparte, introduced as “an ambitious gunner.” Before long, he’s claiming victory at the Siege of Toulon, having successfully driven back Anglo-Spanish forces and the Royalist rebels they were supporting. This is just one of the film’s many handsomely executed battle scenes. There’s much slashing and jabbing of swords, and in a hard-to-watch moment, Napoleon’s horse is blasted in the chest with a cannonball. This doesn’t stop our protagonist, who continues to fight. He becomes sweaty with exertion, though not in a sexy way.

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He’s still not very sexy when he meets and begins courting the widowed and disadvantaged Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby, in an enjoyable performance that’s both matter-of-fact and sultry). Shortly after their first brief meeting, he stands stiffly before her in his uniform, obviously having decided it was the best possible first-date outfit. “What’s this costume you have on?” she asks with kittenish detachment, poking a naughty pin in his bodacious sense of self-regard. Eventually they marry—she needs his stature to reclaim her status. At some point they have sex: he works away at her from behind, while she stares into the middle distance, though probably not thinking of England. Eventually she grows able to tolerate him, and then seems to like or maybe even love him. Yet they pick at one another relentlessly, despite the fact that Napoleon is clearly sick with love for her. The best scenes in Napoleon are those featuring Kirby and Phoenix together: Mostly, she looks at him like a schoolboy who’s barely worth instructing. (She seduces him on that first date by spreading her legs and purring, “If you look down, you’ll see a surprise. If you see it, you’ll always want it.”) Meanwhile, he gazes at her helplessly, as lost as an orphaned calf. The movie jolts to life whenever they’re fighting, or reconciling.

Scott, working from a script by David Scarpa, takes his mission very seriously. We haven’t had many movie Napoleons before: Abel Gance’s rousing 1927 silent epic is the most famous, and though Stanley Kubrick wanted to make one, the project never came to fruition. Scott pours his all into this one—though it seems, judging from his vast and varied body of work, that he pours his all into everything. He’s dealt with this period of history before, in his subtly sensational debut The Duellists, from 1977. Since then, he’s made movies that have become science-fiction classics (Alien, Blade Runner), heartfelt epics set in ancient times (Gladiator), and shaky comedies that, at the very least, suggest that once in a while, even this rather serious-minded director wants to have a little fun (A Good Year). Scott will try anything. A grand-scale moving-picture mural about Napoleon Bonaparte isn’t such a stretch.

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And so Scott—along with frequent collaborators cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max—delights in gilded tableaus like Napoleon’s 1804 coronation, in which he insisted on crowning himself emperor and did the same for his empress Josephine, as the Pope stood by like a useless extra. Scott doesn’t present that as a gonzo baller move, but as a sort of natural expression of Napoleon’s outsize ego. He seems to like Napoleon’s ego, without necessarily approving of it. How you feel about Napoleon depends not just on how much history you know, but on what country you’re from: the French see him as a hero, the English view him as possibly a psychopath. But pretty much everyone agrees he was a brilliant military strategist, and Scott leans into that view, staging battle scenes with great relish. The 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, as Scott presents it, is grimly glamorous: cannonballs smash through ice, plunging horses and soldiers alike into icy waters streaked with plumes of blood. It all looks so elegant that for a split second, you forget to feel horrified.

What was Napoleon like as a man? Scott and Phoenix offer a less definitive view of that, though they drop some hints. Was he a delusional egomaniac? Yes. Was he a sensitive soul who lived for the love of one woman (even if he divorced her when she proved unable to produce an heir)? Yes to that too. Was he an existential cutup specializing in a peculiar kind of dad humor? For sure. At one point, as he and Josephine argue at the dinner table, he bellows, “Destiny has brought me here! Destiny has brought me this lambchop!” Phoenix brings a panoply of characteristics to this enigmatic and very famous man: he’s by turns somber, befuddled, boastful and fearless, as well as simply ridiculous. At times he wears a hurt, confused look, like a sad little boy in an outsized hat. Napoleon won’t send you away with a better understanding of Napoleon the man. But it’s honest, in a sense. As Phoenix plays him, Napoleon is a man so obscured by legend and hearsay that we can never fully know him, and if the movie around him isn’t exactly good, it’s definitely something. Destiny brought Ridley Scott this lambchop of a story; he’ll be damned if he’s not going to feast upon it.

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