• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Review: Napoleon

ByMaya Woodward

Dec 12, 2023

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“Ahh … les anglais,” murmured the Frenchman in front of me filing out of the cinema in Toulouse.

No recent film has divided the English and French quite like Ridley Scott’s blockbuster biopic, Napoleon. “Thrilling,” declared the Guardian, awarding it five stars. “Stops your breath with pure spectacle,” said the Telegraph. Opinions across The Channel, however, have been decidedly less congratulatory. Le Figaro called the film “lourdingne, abérrant, grotèsque”(insanely-dull, absurd, grotesque) – and, crucially, pro-British. 

The film spans 32 years, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the eponymous hero’s death on St Helena in 1821. The rise of Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) to Emperor of France is seen from the point of view of his addictive and volatile relationship with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). 

Yes, the set-piece battle scenes are fantastic. But with some of the richest material in modern history to work with – plus a $200 million budget – Scott still manages to create a curiously empty experience that often leaves the viewer laughing at, rather than with, the film. 

Part of this comes from the inept dialogue. As soon as Napoleon opens his mouth with a Californian accent, as a Brit, our suspension of disbelief vanishes. David Scarpa’s script feels flat and AI-like in its emotional simplicity. 

The Financial Times suggests that the “splashy, grabby moments” are a blatant commercial move movies to play into online cultures of memes—specifically the excruciating scene in which Josephine tells Napoleon to look between her open legs and he will get a surprise. 

Scott seems uncertain what he wants the film to be. Is it the story of Bonaparte from crib to coffin? A love story? A power-play between England and France or Napoleon and Wellington? There are so many storylines and yet none are explored in depth. 

The film gives near equal-billing to the relationship between Josephine and Napoleon, as it does to the various wars waged, suggesting that, at heart, everything Napoleon did was for Josephine. Telling her, ‘I am nothing without you’ implies that the real battles of the mighty Bonaparte’s life were in his marriage, not on the battlefield. 

Though Scott shows Napoleon as popular with the French people, no evidence is offered for why this is so. Without the context of the many changes he introduced, such as the Napoleonic Code (the reorganisation of French laws), the financial reforms, the restoration of law and order, the emperor is reduced to a one-dimensional Corsican tyrant. 

There have been more than 60,000 books published about Napoleon yet to historians pointing out the numerous basic historical errors in the film, Scott has replied, “Get a life.” Yet easy-to-verify facts such as that Napoleon was not at Marie Antoinette’s execution, but taking part in the Siege of Toulon at the time – a crucial factor in forcing the British troops to withdraw – make for an idiosyncratic retelling of the story. 

Perhaps what aggravates the French most is the emphasis on Napoleon’s relationship with Britain rather than with the French Revolution. This towering figure in their national identity is portrayed as a bloody-thirsty ruffian bent on power, compared to the respectable Wellington. Houdecek, a special projects director at Le Fondation Napoléon, calls this portrayal a “very Anglo-Saxon vision of the man,” also noting, perhaps a little sourly, that Le Fondation was not consulted by Scott while making the film. 

“Scott clearly doesn’t like Napoleon,” said French historian Patrice Gueniffey. However, what seemed missing in the film is precisely this: a point of view on the man, instead of the simple perpetuation of the myth of a monolithic and boorish emperor with no vision. When the list of the number of troops who died in Napoleon’s wars appears on screen at the end, the sudden moralising feels out of kilter with the rest of the film. This story of one of the most controversial figures in French history leaves the audience oddly indifferent. 

Scott has missed an opportunity. The historical inaccuracies, the lack of an original perspective, the clumsy dialogue and essential shallowness of the film all give rise to a sense of relief when (finally) the screen goes black. His claim that “The French don’t even like themselves,” is not defence enough. Perhaps, the truth is that the grand old man of cinema likes himself and his Anglo-Saxon compatriots a bit too much. “Ahh … les anglais.”

Ridley Scott” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.