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Ridley Scott's Napoleonic Complex

Ridley Scott's Napoleonic Complex

By focusing on Napoleon's battlefield and bedroom exploits, Ridley Scott's new biopic glamorizes the abuses of tyranny.

Allison Shely

For a movie about such a prodigious historical figure, set in such a momentous era, director Ridley Scott’s new film Napoleon has surprisingly little to say. Artistically, any overriding message Napoleon may have is hobbled by critically uneven tonal choices made throughout the film. Arguably more importantly, however, are the film’s substantive failings: With Napoleon, Scott had the opportunity to wrestle with timely themes of social unrest and authoritarianism, and to highlight the dangers of trusting too much to one-man rule. Instead, he shied away from opportunities to grapple with the political aspects of Napoleon's rule, offering a film that leaves viewers with a tacit approval–if not glamorization­–of tyranny.

The challenge in producing any period piece is to balance the needs of historical accuracy and narrative art. No one expects a major motion picture to be a docudrama; artistic license can be forgiven if it serves the purposes of story and does not do too much violence to historical fact. Admittedly, the latter is easier said than done as history typically admits multiple interpretations. One man’s freedom fighter may be another’s terrorist; one woman’s tyrant may be another’s lawgiver. Napoleon's legacy includes such nuance. He restricted the rights of women and reintroduced chattel slavery to the West Indies, but he also emancipated Jews living in the lands he conquered. On a personal level, Napoleon was a devoted stepfather to Josephine’s children and a solicitous father to his own. 

While Napoleon’s legacy is not solely one of conquest, the film ignores this. Napoleon is one long series of conquests—military and sexual–that fails to achieve a balance between accuracy and artistry, too esoteric for a general audience but too inaccurate for history buffs. Andrew Roberts’s magisterial biography Napoleon: A Life proves to be a useful counterpoint to Scott’s film in this regard. I found it a helpful guide in sorting fact from fiction, and highly recommend it to anyone interested enough in Napoleon to brave its 800 pages. 

It would be tiresome to list all of the film’s offenses against historical accuracy, so here is perhaps the greatest: When thirty-two year-old widow and single mother Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) married twenty-six year-old brigadier general Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) in March 1796, the age gap was so scandalous that they lied about their ages on their marriage paperwork, claiming they were both aged twenty-eight. Her relative maturity and established society persona attracted Napoleon to her, both as a political asset and as a woman. By contrast, Kirby is thirty-five and Phoenix is forty-nine years-old. By inverting the age discrepancy between Josephine and Napoleon, the film erases one reason that she rather than the conqueror was often the dominant partner—her maturity and worldliness, which captivated him. Why not cast a younger actor as Napoleon to make us question the power dynamics of power couples?

More common are the small errors which build upon each other without serving artistic purpose. For example, the film opens with Marie Antoinette walking defiantly to the guillotine through a crowd of stereotypical peasants throwing rotten food at her. After focusing on the former queen’s now decapitated head held aloft, the camera pans to show Phoenix’s Napoleon for the first time, standing near the scaffold, looking indifferent. The historical Napoleon did not attend the execution, but that can be forgiven, as it is an effective way of introducing the title character. The issue is that the former queen’s hair is still long and full, needing to be neatly tucked through the yoke of the guillotine, whereas in reality the hair of victims was shorn to prevent any obstruction to the blade, as portrayed in the sketch, “Marie Antoinette led to Her Execution” by chief artist of the Revolution, Jacques-Louis David. 

A few film scenes later, at Josephine's first meeting with Napoleon at a raucous “Survivors’ Ball” following the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror, she sports the pixie cut and red-ribbon choker of the fashion à la victim. But because of the inaccuracies in the opening scene, only the most committed history devotees will understand that this was not a striking contemporary “design choice” by the costume team, but a historically accurate fashion trend directly connected to the Reign of Terror.

Another faulty scene setting is just laughable. Behind Napoleon hangs a portrait of English boy-king Edward VI, revealing that the set is in fact the drawing room of some great British country house rather than a French chateau.

The historical inaccuracies could be forgiven if there was an overarching message or substantive meaning to Napoleon. Instead, to paraphrase a saying, the film is merely a presentation of “one darn thing after another.” Governments come and go across the screen with little explanation. Title cards sometimes set the date and scene or provide the name of a newly-introduced character, but these are inconsistently applied. Furthermore, Napoleon fails to achieve even tonal consistency. Just as it wavers between accurate and completely ficticious history, so too does the film waver between epic and camp without achieving a workable balance.

This tonal ambiguity sometimes seems intentional by Scott. Battle scenes do not gloss over bloodshed; early on in the film, Napoleon’s horse is shot out from underneath him—by a cannon. This gritty realism works for the battle scenes but falls flat when applied to dialogue. When Napoleon abandons his post in Egypt to return home in order to confront the cheating Josephine, he is summoned by the leaders of the Directory—France’s government following the fall of Robespierre—to answer on charges of desertion. He gives a long, stirring speech in which he claims to have returned to remediate the many crises the Directory has failed to address. But he concludes with the deadpan observation that he has also been motivated to return by “the discovery [his] wife is a slut.” The Directory does not react to the obscene personal outburst.

The worst offender on this count, however, is a grossly inappropriate choice of music. Prior to their marriage, Josephine completes her seduction of Napoleon as they sit in her drawing room by spreading her legs, hiking her skirt up, and boasting aloud of the irresistibility of her genitals. The music playing over this obscene display is the opening theme, “Dawn,” from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Not a similar piece of music—it is the very theme itself, recognizable to almost everyone with even a passing interest in period dramas. The musical theme makes a second appearance, in the aftermath of an erotically-charged marital dispute. It is just as ill-fitting here as before. The choice is jarring and mind-boggling. Lest any should think that this is deliberate satire, while the movie does aim for ‘gritty’ details there is no indication of a satirical tone; indeed the many close shots of Napoleon, accompanied by swelling music, toothlessly command the audience to take this seriously as a very serious historical epic. 

The greatest flaw—or at least, missed opportunity—of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, however, is its failure to engage with our time. In a world of rising authoritarian sentiment, both within the United States and abroad, what judgment does the film pass on the historical character of Napoleon in particular, or on one-man rule in general?

Very little judgment at all, it seems. Aside from the opening title card that proclaims that people are “led by misery to revolution…and by revolution to misery,” Scott seems to give no political or historiographic framework by which viewers are to understand the film. Viewers see very little of the masses, aside from the opening scene, nor the impact of Napoleon’s rule on them, for good or ill. There is no discussion of Napoleon’s domestic policy or assessment of his legacy. The historical Napoleon was an obsessive micromanager of all aspects of his empire, but we only see Phoenix’s Napoleon on the battlefield or in the bedroom, never at his desk engaged in the everyday work of running a government. “One-man rule is exciting! One-man rule is epic!” Scott seems to be saying. “One-man rule means governance will never be boring or laborious.”

Phoenix’s Napoleon is a charming, blunt monster who grows increasingly convinced of his invincibility, but he betrays little of his motives for any of his actions. His desire for power is stated only subtly; whether he tells himself it is for the good of France, or of humanity, or of any end other than his own desire, viewers are left to wonder. His rise and fall are so swift and inevitable that viewers are discouraged from questioning how and why power ever changes hands.

By presenting tyranny as inevitable, morally ambiguous, and perhaps even charming, Napoleon promotes a dangerous message for our dangerous world—even if it is by omission. 

Allison R. Shely writes about power, policy, art, and faith on her weekly Substack, All Opinions Her Own.

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