Much of​ Ridley Scott’s Napoleon feels like an unintended essay on the art of cinema. The good bits, and there are quite a few, make up a silent film with some noise. The terrible bits are over-simplified soap opera, where people talk and are supposed to have feelings. Critics and scholars have complained about ‘historical inaccuracies’, but the most interesting deviations from fact are not that. They are pieces of plot where the film shows that history has only a feeble sense of drama and romance. The effect can be quite tame. Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) dies a little later than she did in reality, so that Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) can be distressed at the right time in his career. Or the effect may be amazing: all kinds of things happen in our minds if we learn that Napoleon is among the crowd at the guillotining of Marie Antoinette in 1793. As a matter of fact he was in Toulon at the time, putting an end to a royalist revolt backed by England and Spain – we get to see him at work on this as well.

These two sequences open the film, interrupted by a short scene in which Robespierre tells a crowd why it was a good idea to execute the ex-queen. Both sequences are terrific, and promise a film that doesn’t arrive, or arrives only in pieces. Marie Antoinette (Catherine Walker) approaches her death in a tumbril. She doesn’t look scared, just scornful of the audience and her executioners. In a striking shot her head is placed between boards to receive the falling blade, but the boards don’t fit into place immediately. A little tugging and jigging are necessary to get her head firmly fixed, as if the executioner’s assistants were trying to fit something into a box whose lid was bent. Then the camera moves skywards to give us a sight of the blade. We see it fall, but not where it lands. We do see the executioner pick up the severed head and wave it for the cheering crowd. What does Napoleon think of all this? We shall never know – this is part of the movie’s silence.

Given the task of ending the revolt in Toulon, Napoleon tells his superior that the trick will be to focus not on the city but on the harbour. In a series of frames, Napoleon and his men approach a fort where English and French royalist soldiers are celebrating. Part of the amazement is that the attackers should manage to be so stealthy, given the number of cannon they are using. Fighting begins and the republicans are too swift for their enemies, although quite a few of them die too, and the most memorable frame shows Napoleon’s horse being killed as it leaps forwards, the cannonball opening its chest as if it were performing fatal surgery. Later we see Napoleon retrieve the cannonball as a record of grief. But the point of the adventure is not just to take the fort. It is to fire from the fort and destroy the English and Spanish ships in the harbour. The blaze is a wonderful sight, although of course not everyone will have found it picturesque. There is a similar effect later in the film, when Napoleon and his men enter a nearly empty Moscow, abandoned before he had time to fight anyone. The next day the city is in flames, destroyed by the withdrawing Russians. In this respect, history does at times seem to be in pre-production for the movies.

After Toulon we turn to Napoleon’s private life, or we would if he had one. He meets and marries Josephine de Beauharnais, and later returns from the war in Egypt because he hears that she has been sleeping with someone else. They have an implausible duel of words and make a sort of peace. Although they later get divorced we are to imagine he will never stop thinking of her, alive or dead, but Scott and his screenwriter, David Scarpa, seem to have gone to sleep for this part of the story, leaving the film to invent its own language and emotions according to whatever clichés it can find.

Things get worse when the film takes up the tale of Napoleon’s need for an heir and Josephine’s inability to bear him one. We plod our way to their separation, and the only relief is the elaborate comedy of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor of France – he had risen not just through the ranks but out of the ranks, becoming one of a trio of consuls, then a consul alone, before he decided the job needed a grander designation. What’s interesting here is that Scott and Scarpa can’t make up their minds about how much satire they want to hint at, and their uncertainty is good for the movie because it gets in the way of ready-made interpretations. The satire is clear at the end when Napoleon tells a group of children that he was always ready to acknowledge his mistakes – it’s just that he didn’t make any. But by then he’s in exile, writing his memoirs, and his active role in history is over.

What do we think of Scott’s Napoleon as a man of action, as distinct from the fellow who is supposed to be humanised by his awkward private life? The obvious answer would be guided by what happens in the movie after he becomes emperor. Apart from a couple of meetings with other heads of state – the emperor of Austria and the tsar of Russia – what we get are famous battles: Austerlitz (1805), Borodino (1812) and Waterloo (1815). The first is spectacular, and indeed for a long time was a kind of movie, since its most extravagant element – Napoleon’s army driving the Austrians and Russians onto lakes of ice, which broke beneath them causing them to drown in shades of watery light – is now taken to be apocryphal. The second is like a modern documentary, with French and Russian soldiers pursuing each other through the trees, and nobody really winning out in one of the bloodiest ever wars.

It was also the beginning of the end for Napoleon. He claimed victory and went on to occupy an empty Moscow, as we have seen. But then he had to get back to France, and the winter destroyed both his army and the sense that he was a superman. He was removed from office and the monarchy returned.

If Austerlitz is the grandest of these screen battles, Waterloo is perhaps the most thought-provoking, because Scott pays such close attention to Napoleon at work, hesitating, deciding on particular moves of cavalry or foot soldiers, delaying action because he doesn’t like the rain, and leading charges himself as if in a famous painting. It is also clear, in this movie at least, that if Blücher’s Prussian army had arrived a little later – we are witnesses to its delay – Napoleon would have dealt with Wellington and been able to tackle the new arrivals. As if to apologise for finally making Napoleon’s fate seem interesting, Scott appends to the film a list of the number of people who died in his major battles.

It’s clear, I think, that in spite of various attempts to make Napoleon work as a biopic, the film doesn’t have a bio. It has a general of genius, something like a sports figure who is alive only in games or tournaments. The historical Napoleon certainly had a personal and intellectual life. He invented the Napoleonic Code and, before his imperial fantasies, took the ideas of the French Revolution to many parts of Europe. But none of that appears in Scott’s film. The reason his Napoleon is often intriguing, in spite of all the attempts to make him as boring as possible, has a name: Joaquin Phoenix. He is clumsy and unaccommodating, but manifestly not reducible to any parody of meaning. He is not Marlon Brando as Napoleon in Désirée (1954). We need perhaps to invent a word whose meaning is the exact opposite of charisma, a word that would conjure up a complete, terminal absence of glamour. It would describe a performance, of course. That is what acting is about. Why this performance is so admirable, and half-saves the movie, is another question.

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Vol. 46 No. 2 · 25 January 2024

Discussing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, Michael Wood suggests that ‘we need perhaps to invent a word whose meaning is the exact opposite of charisma, a word that would conjure up a complete, terminal absence of glamour’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). We already have that word: ‘charisn’tma’, coined in the 1990s by Barry Cryer to describe the political performance of then prime minister, John Major. Charisn’tma has the interesting feature, for the cineaste, that it can be represented visually as well as semantically. In Spitting Image, Major’s puppet always appeared as (literally) grey, even though the programme was broadcast in colour.

Allan House
University of Leeds

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