While Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has been causing consternation among some historians, they are overlooking the fact that the historical record does actually support the film’s narrative in terms of one man taking power and shaping a new order during times of revolution and chaos.
Set against the bloody backdrop of the French revolution (1789-1799), Empress Josephine — a beautifully judged performance by Vanessa Kirby — who narrowly escaped Robespierre’s guillotine, loves Napoleon for his power and image.
In turn, the general (played by a much older Joaquin Phoenix — Napoleon at this point was 30, Phoenix is 49, but is so good it is easy to overlook this detail that had historians squawking), is obsessed with Josephine. The film unfolds in an unpredictable narrative, laying bare the poignant letters that expose the complex love-hate relationship they share.
But Napoleon’s Egyptian trip is interrupted by rumors of Josephine’s infidelity, compelling him to return home in secret. He justifies this with the need to monitor the turbulence that threatens the cohesion of France.
By illuminating Napoleon in different shades — sometimes as a passionate being devoted to his love for Josephine, and sometimes as a military genius leading his troops — Scott manages to bring us into the intimacy of power. This comes at a time when France faces the temptation to turn back the clock and deviate from its revolutionary ideals by restoring the ancien régime (the system of prior to the French Revolution).
Picking His Moments
The film avoids descending into excessive carnage and instead maintains a fast pace with carefully chosen scenes. The intention is not to reproduce every detail of Napoleon’s life, but rather to present the powerful French general who captured the world’s attention for more than 15 years.
On the geopolitical front, the battle of Toulon was fought in 1793, where Napoleon surprised British troops by taking possession of their fleet. Then came the conquest of Egypt, whose scenes, no doubt exaggerated (such as the destruction of the pyramids and the opening of a sarcophagus), form part of Scott’s artistic interpretation.
When Napoleon’s hat rises above the corpse in the sarcophagus, it recalls Mozart’s Requiem — death slowly approaching in these carefully choreographed moments of destruction. The battle of Austerlitz is admirably rendered, with Napoleon’s memorable strategic maneuver outsmarting the enemy by making them think there was a weak point where he could attack.
By letting the enemy surround him on both flanks, Napoleon used the strategic advantage to fight superior opposing armies. He then meets Tsar Alexander I, portrayed by a young actor. Scott uses the age aspect to show the ambivalence of Napoleon’s relationship with power. Napoleon thinks he is dealing with a young tsar, less experienced and impressed by the large army.
The fact that they have a common enemy is not enough to unite them, and the director gives the viewer a powerful wink when Phoenix sits on the abandoned throne of Alexander I, a leader who preferred to burn his cities to starve the great army.
It is as if we have a second version of Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator here, with Napoleon as Emperor Commodus, unable to accept the rationality of reality and stubbornly stuck in a form of hubris that will claim the lives of more than 500,000 soldiers.
The “spirit of the world,” as the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called Napoleon, is now no more than a shadow of his former self, aware that death is never far away. Scott chooses to show us a man who, despite the exaggerations, is sincere and direct, capable of winning the respect of soldiers and leading them into difficult battles.
History and Power
The film is rich in subtle nuances, alternating between the tragic, the farcical and the grotesque, as power often manifests itself in this paradoxical arena. Karl Marx, a keen observer of the upheavals in France, showed no hesitation in his book on Napoleon’s coup d’état in emphasizing the tragic and comic recurrences in history.
A despot always creates successors, and history is found in parodic reincarnations. Napoleon III was, for instance, a pale replica of Napoleon I, losing most of his wars. In fact, Napoleon III tried to mimic the leadership style of Napoleon without being able to reconcile monarchist and republican forces. Although he succeeded in modernizing the country, he never really established himself as a leading figure in the memory of the French people.
In Scott’s film, we can feel the postmodern hesitation between the old and the new world. Historically, Napoleon consolidated the gains of the Revolution, and the French are grateful to him for ending this phase. This prevented a complete return to the ancien régime, despite the illusions of the counter-revolutionary Restoration regime after the Congress of Vienna.
That is why this film is an absolute must-see. Through the fiction, sometimes surpassed by the brutal reality, the viewer is invited to immerse themselves in the madness of power and its irreversible impact on the fate of nations.
There is also an underlying appeal to not just read history to trace the past, but rather to understand the experience of power madness. Scott has undoubtedly created the film that Stanley Kubrick dreamed of making. Don’t miss it.