A French Critic’s Thoughts on Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’

Napoleon on horseback

British director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator) has pulled off a fine feat: transforming a historical figure as complex as Napoleon into a bland, one-dimensional character. That, in a nutshell, is the feeling one gets after watching his Napoleon, released in the U.S. last week to much promotional fanfare.

The much-anticipated biopic is a fictionalized biography of the deposed emperor, from his emergence amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, to his death in exile on the island of St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo. The film alternates between two narratives: Napoleon’s love affair with Joséphine de Beauharnais, with whom he attempts desperately to have a child; and his exploits on the battlefield, starting with the recapture of Toulon from British and Royalist forces in 1793.

Unfortunately, this simplistic and binary representation of Napoleon’s life completely obscures the richness of the controversial historical figure, a Corsican with a poor command of French who somehow rose to the heights of power. Instead of recounting this meteoric rise, and his fall, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, played by the usually inspired Joaquin Phoenix, is a dull, tasteless man making grotesque noises in the bedroom.

The Forgotten Heritage of Napoleon

The film ends with the human toll of Napoleon’s battles, as if violence were his only legacy. There’s no denying that the despot brought bloodshed to Europe, including through the re-establishment of slavery in the colonies (an aspect totally absent from the film), but he also shaped modern France. We owe him the baccalauréat, the Civil Code, and the creation of prefects assigned to each department to join together the regions.

In addition to the film’s share of historical inaccuracies, the fact that the characters are all English-speaking creates an additional barrier. The names of the ministers and generals surrounding Napoleon are sometimes difficult to grasp, and the accented cries of “vive la France!” would put a smile on the face of any French speaker.

The director has said that he didn’t set out to make a documentary, but it’s regrettable that he didn’t use his talent and budget ($200 million) to paint a more rigorous portrait of Napoleon… Because if there’s one leader whose life doesn’t need to be romanticized to make it the subject of a successful feature film, it’s him!

French Critics are Being Way Harsher Than American Ones

Other filmmakers have done a much better job of capturing Napoleon’s complexity. One example is Sergei Bondarchuk, director of the excellent Waterloo, in which Rod Steiger brilliantly embodies the role of a military leader as much admired as he is ill and irascible during the titular final debacle against the British and Prussian armies.

Of course, Scott’s film isn’t all bad. Some scenes are superb, such as the battle of Austerlitz, a Napoleonic victory in 1805; and his coronation as the first Emperor of France at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The costumes, too, are worth their weight in gold. But that’s not enough to make you forget the rest. After twenty minutes, you just can’t take it anymore…

In response to the fierce criticism from the French press – much harsher than that of American or British journalists, if the New York Times is to be believed – the director said that, “the French don’t even like themselves.” He also invited his detractors to “get a life.” In any case, the controversy is selling. Napoleon grossed over a million dollars at the box office on the day of its release in France. But that’s not to say that everyone left the cinema conquered…

This article by Alexis Buisson was originally published on French Morning. It has been translated for Frenchly by Catherine Rickman.

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