Saturday, January 13, 2024


Ridley Scott: Napoleon (2023) starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Ridley Scott is at his best in Napoleon.

I have been his fan since The Duellists. Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise for me belong to the essential achievements of world cinema. I was disappointed with G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, A Good Year, Robin Hood and Prometheus, and ceased to even check Scott's new work. But I liked House of Gucci. Gladiator for me was impressive enough but suffered in comparison with The Fall of the Roman Empire on which it is based. Napoleon, instead, stands up to comparisons so well that I get curious to catch up with Scott's late period (The Martian, Alien: Covenant, All the Money in the World, The Last Duel).

Napoléon vu par Abel Gance is the lasting masterpiece on the subject, amazing in its cinematic inventiveness which is not mere eye-popping brio but a perfect visual counterpart to the revolutionary subject. 

Gance followed Napoléon's story only until the dawn of his Italian campaign in 1796. Ridley Scott covers the entire saga until the warlord's death on the isle of Elba in 1821. His grandiose ambition requires severe pruning and focusing.

Scott's solution is dual. He covers Napoleon's major military turning-points with epic grandeur. But he gives full weight also to Napoleon's love story with Joséphine Bonaparte (de Beauharnais).

Major military sequences include the Siege of Toulon, the Battle of the Pyramids, the Battle of Austerlitz, the Battle of Borodino and the Battle of Waterloo.* All different, all impressive. King Vidor and Sergei Bondarchuk excelled in the Austerlitz and Borodino sequences in their respective War and Peace adaptations. Bondarchuk's Borodino reconstruction in War and Peace Part III: The Year 1812 (SU 1967) has been for me the most formidable battle sequence ever filmed. But Ridley Scott copes impressively, too. Waterloo is the ultimate climax of his movie, as it should be.

Focusing on the military, Scott ignores the meaning of the French Revolution: the message of "liberté, égalité, fraternité", the downfall of the ancient regime and the corrupt feudal system, and the rise of the victorious bourgeoisie, free speech and free enterprise.  Huge social transformations such as le Code Napoléon (Code civil) are not mentioned even in passing. Scott does convey the backlash when the revolutionary general is crowned into Emperor, and the call of liberty is perverted into a call of Empire. Nevertheless, after mighty tides and ebbs, the world changes irrevocably to the one in which we live now.

As Napoléon, Joaquin Phoenix at first seems stuck in monotonous arrogance, but in Ridley Scott's telling, the encounter with Joséphine transforms him. At first he acts like a moron, even sexually, although the sexual charge between the two is instant and electrifying. Joséphine's indiscretions hurt Napoleon deeply, as does her inability to conceive. During their marriage, Napoléon matures emotionally, and Scott's movie is the one in which we see the emperor most often in tears.

Vanessa Kirby is moving and engaging as Joséphine.  I understand that history-loving Frenchmen find it hard to relate to Ridley Scott's imagined Joséphine. Nevertheless, she is no token woman in a man's world, but a strong-willed and independent spirit on a wild ride through history. In Ridley Scott's interpretation, Napoléon chooses a woman equal in character and will-power. Let's register in this age of increasing attention to fair display of female agency that Ridley Scott has a very good record ever since Sigourney Weaver created a new kind of heroine as Ripley in Alien.

In the Battle of Waterloo, Rupert Everett as Duke of Wellington is convincing as the Field Marshal who beats Napoléon. Memorable are also Paul Rhys as Talleyrand and Ben Miles as Caulaincourt.

Musically, Carl Davis's unforgettable solution for Gance's Napoléon was to combine heroic Beethoven (such as the Emperor concerto) with key revolutionary tunes like, inevitably, La Marseillaise. There is no Beethoven here; instead, lovely piano passages from Haydn. There is no Marseillaise either, but a selection Revolutionary songs like " Ah ! ça ira " (sung by Édith Piaf for Sacha Guitry's Si Versailles m'était conté...) and " La Carmagnole ". The solution resembles that of Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov for War and Peace. No pomp and circumstance.

* The catalogue of the battles sounds like a list of subway stations. Among them, Borodino has the distinction of being a Napoleonic battlefield with a subway station of its own.

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