Ridley Scott’s Napoleon dares to ask, can you be a great man if you can’t make your wife cum?
When discussing the Battle of Waterloo, we think of the battle as a loss for Napoleon rather than a win for the British and Prussians. Despite being an accomplished military leader, Napoleon has long been framed by his failures. We don’t imagine his victories and his unlikely ascension to emperor. We imagine his losses and his pitiful death in exile. Rather than celebrating the life of a great conqueror, director Ridley Scott leans into this perspective. The film opens in misery and ends in death; even Napoleon’s victories on the battlefield are judged not by his accomplishments but by his casualties.
Central to this telling of Napoleon is his obsessive affair with Josephine. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon dares to ask, can you be a great man if you can’t make your wife cum? Can a man who conquers empires but cannot conquer a woman be worthy of greatness? Joaquin Phoenix portrays Napoleon as sleepy, his voice unsure and his presence unremarkable. He comes across as a man without imagination, a man without passion. At best, he is soft and, at worst, uncurious. What might at first seem like stoicism translates instead to dullness. We never, for better and for worse, see Napoleon as a man who could move mountains or command an army.
The film begins during the French Revolution and opens with the execution of Marie Antoinette. She’s a proud, high-cheeked woman who holds her head high. But it won’t be long before it is her executioner who holds her head up, severed from her limp body, for a cheering and bloodthirsty crowd. In typical Ridley Scott fashion, the scene is overcast, casting the world in shades of grey. The spark of colour is washed away in shadows, the blood almost maroon, muddy and dripping from her neck.
Napoleon, starring Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix
Aesthetically, the film resembles much of Scott’s work post-Gladiator. There’s a recognizable flourish to using coloured tints to indicate heat (yellow), cold (light grey-blue) and night (dark blue). In this case, very briefly, it evokes similar coloured tinting used in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) — one of the great silent films that used colour tinting to translate the grandeur of the revolution and the tragedy of Napoleon’s life. Yet, for the most part, Scott has been doing much of the same for over a decade. The flourish here feels more accidental than purposeful.
Scott does right with the image by ensuring that each frame overflows with life. Minor characters and gestures occupy the frame, evoking a world beyond the boundaries of the story. He knows how to coordinate crowds and bring to life the logic and brutality of battle. His filmmaking skews heavily toward muted functionality over composed artistry. Scott occupies that strange place in contemporary auteurism, where his filmmaking is immediately recognizable without featuring many striking images. In its 2.5-hour runtime, the movie manages only one astonishing image: During the Battle of Austerlitz, as canons pierce through a frozen lake, ice shatters, water swirls and the orange-coloured blood of soldiers and horses alike swirl and dissipate like a terrible rusted cloud.
Much of the film, though, focuses on Napoleon’s obsession with his wife, Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). When we first see her, she’s gambling in a salon. The soft glow of candlelight illuminates her pale skin, taut over her frame thinned out by her recent imprisonment. Her eyes meet Napoleon’s across the room, and when she confronts him, it doesn’t feel playful but domineering. “Why are you staring at me?” she accuses. He’s smitten at first and soon desperate for her attention.
The most exciting elements of the film examine their complex relationship. In line with two other recent Scott films, the mostly middling House of Gucci and the mostly great The Last Duel, sex preoccupies both the main character and the film. While history books recount Napoleon’s great battles, victories and eventual losses, his daily preoccupation is with the woman he loves but can’t quite have.
The film doesn’t paint their relationship as a grand love affair. She submits to his affections after the death of her husband because he isn’t a “bad” man. He’s powerful and mostly kind; if they never become great lovers, they will eventually become great friends, but not after a handful of humiliations. We watch as they fuck for the first time, her leaning over the bed, bored and stiff, as he pumps rhythmlessly into her (in an era where people lament the gratuitousness of sex scenes, everything you need to know about Napoleon is contained in the few sweaty seconds of his lovemaking).
Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott
As he leaves for conquests in Africa, Josephine takes a lover. For the first time in the film, the movie takes on the texture of irony and humour. Napoleon’s stiffness and his lack of erotic imagination come into more explicit focus. The measure of his greatness comes into question, as his inability to fuck casts a shadow on all his accomplishments. The personal failure to please his wife, a consistent theme even at their most rowdy, animalistic and intimate, casts Napoleon in a pitiful light.
The focus on this element of the story would feel gossipy if it were not quite serious. Scott isn’t wrong to insist upon the importance of Napoleon’s personal life as a motivator and a distraction from his civil responsibilities. The affections of Josephine heavily inform his life, and his reputation similarly suffers due to his perceptions as a cuckold. Phoenix leans heavily into this aspect of the performance, highlighting Napoleon’s fragility, a quaking voice on the brink of tears, even at his most arrogant and smug. We don’t necessarily see a man, as history has led us to believe, literally diminutive in stature — the film does little to emphasize Napoleon’s height — but diminutive in life. Here, Napoleon is a small man because of his actions and demeanour.
Napoleon is fundamentally is about the other history, not necessarily the unwritten one, but the history of sex and innuendos. When reading between the lines of history, what motivates men to behave the way they do? Increasingly, Scott seems to argue sex and desire underline their actions, often leading them into despair.
As a film, however, Napoleon is also flawed. It is messy and bloated, but with moments of brilliance. ■
Napoleon (directed by Ridley Scott)
Napoleon opens in Montreal theatres on Nov. 22 and will later be available to stream on Apple+.
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