Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Scarpa
He probably wouldn't have had to say it, because this happens with clockwork reliability with this director, but Ridley Scott has gone out of his way to tell us that there's a locked-and-loaded four hour director's cut of his newest historical epic. In some respects, the theatrical release of Napoleon is just an advertisement for this four hour cut, which will show up exclusively on Apple+ (it's a streaming service, a very unjustifiable one, and if you didn't even know what I was referring to, I can't say as I'd blame you) at some point in early 2024. It could be that the theatrical cut is, in fact, unrepresentative of how that four hour version of Napoleon works. For all I know the four hour version is a masterpiece. Yet I really doubt I'm ever going to bother finding out: within the not-exactly trivial 157 minutes the theatrical cut makes available to him, Scott has not merely not come close to finding a good movie out of his footage, he has not found any movie, except in the barest technical sense of the term.
It's just barely enough to identify the thesis that David Scarpa's screenplay is built around: basically, Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) loves Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), but not wisely nor well, and this defined the course of his ambitions as a general, consul, emperor, and megalomaniacal conqueror on behalf of a rather nebulous collection of people called "France," which reflects, on the microcosmic scale of a passionate but failed marriage, the psychological and sociological defects that created, then doomed, the revolutionary project of 1789-1815. That sort of sounds like a Ridley Scott movie: it's not a world away from the Napoleonic subject matter of Scott's very first feature film, 1977's The Duellists, which prosecuted more-or-less the same argument in the form of the violent binding of two men to a mutual, stupid code of honor representing the failure of aristocracy and revolution alike. The Duellists was even a little schematic in that regard, but by no means fatally so, deploying its vignettes and its imagery so that its point arose naturally out of its circumstances.
This is a different sort of challenge—no "symbols" here, this is literally the guy who runs France—and, frankly, this is a different, almost half-century-older Scott, significantly more prone to blunt artlessness and significantly less prone to keeping his narratives focused. (His film-before-last, 2021's The Last Duel, is a perfectly likeable exception, though Napoleon has a lot more in common with its immediate predecessor in Scott's filmography, House of Gucci, a firehose of shapeless plot points running a good two and a half hours. Purely for its subject matter, I should like Napoleon more than House of Gucci—it's startling and upsetting that I don't—and Napoleon is something akin to all the weaknesses of The Last Duel and House of Gucci combined: from the former, the gracelessness regarding what it wants to be about; from the latter, the storytelling too addled for it to actually be about anything. I'm content to bury it in a parenthetical, but this is conceivably the worst movie Scott's ever made.)
"Napoleon is influenced, not necessarily for the better, by romantic and/or psychosexual obsession" is not itself a new angle—it is unclear if there even could be a new angle—and it's not necessarily that good an angle, even. (Compare Conquest: Greta Garbo, Charles Boyer, and Clarence Brown couldn't quite make it work, in the 1930s, at MGM, which really ought to have been a caution.) But even leaving aside whatever burdens age and hideboundedness have placed upon Scott in 2023, it's almost like he intentionally chose the most difficult way possible for him, personally, to make the point that Napoleon sucks, with this particular angle requiring a skill at handling romance and interpersonal relationships that this director has almost literally never demonstrated throughout his entire long career. (And which, as noted, he failed rather badly at only one film ago. There's Thelma & Louise for a two-hander, but I'm not sure how far back you would have to go to find something memorably romantic, or erotic, or intimate, in a Ridley Scott film; I've never seen A Good Year, I don't hear good things, so it's entirely possible we're looking at Blade Runner, a movie made in 1982, and obviously your mileage might vary wildly on that. Cameron Diaz fucked a car in The Counselor. It was neat, but does it count?)
Nevertheless, in the first forty minutes of Napoleon we do have something akin to the first twenty minutes of a movie on the subject of Napoleon Bonaparte, newly promoted to brigadier general after the Siege of Toulon, and Josephine, Viscountess de Beauhernais, and how he made her acquaintance—incidentally, I'm not even going to bother looking up, let alone pointing out, what is and is not accurate here, at least so far as this courtship and marriage are concerned, for while they could be purely a creature of screenwriting artifice, they also probably should be—whereupon she latched ahold of him on the basis of a kindness he did for her, treating the aristocratic widow with some measure of respect in the middle of Directory-run France, despite her suspect background. These forty-or-twenty minutes, then, involve actual movie scenes, in which characters do idiosyncratic things and the movie's 200 year old grudge can be used in interesting ways, such as when Napoleon, given a grave task by Josephine, finds himself not-very-happily compelled to choose a random sword from a storeroom full of hundreds of dead aristocrats' swords, because he assumes she won't know the difference between this one and her dead husband's, which she doesn't.
It's not played all that well and it's not that funny or melancholy and Scott doesn't really figure out how to make an indelible image out of the gimme of "a roomfull of swords representing the mountain of corpses killed by the Jacobins," but it's okay. It's also where the "movie" part stops and it becomes a series of events presented more as supporting evidence of the movie's aforementioned thesis, as well as events that are included because Ridley Scott is a maker of epic histories and therefore was not going to leave out Austerlitz, the War of 1812, or Waterloo. Scarpa isn't really able to "tie these in" so much as at least make some of them dual-use; for instance, Austerlitz "justifies" being in the movie because it's where Napoleon meets Aleksandr, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (Edouard Philipponnat), whom Napoleon discovers fourteen hours of subjective runtime later might or might not have had an affair with Josephine after the fall of France and his abdication. Oh, right, Josephine has affairs, which means I've gotten us slightly ahead of ourselves, but it's kind of what the empress is most famous for, and this is more like a state of being for her character in the movie than for any particular reason, anyway.
So: on his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon learns that Josephine's fucking around, which is the exigence for his destined abandonment of his army in Africa so that he happens to be in exactly the right place at the right time for the Coup of 18 Brumaire. Something something declared emperor, fights Austria and Russia in the War of the Third Coalition, fumes about Britain, compels Europe into an invasion of Russia in the only bit of geopolitics that the movie goes out of its way to really dwell upon, despite its rationale being at a complete tangent to anything it's about, abdicates at Fontainebleu (might not actually be in the movie), comes back for the War of the Hundred Days, loses at Waterloo. Josephine proves barren, and he divorces her, at some point during this too.
I'm sorry, but it's such a fucking slurry. That four hour cut has got to at least be better at pacing; this is a bunch of stuff thrown at us with so little difference in emphasis about anything and so little connective tissue that it feels longer than 157 minutes, and it would be a rare achievement for 157 minutes to feel short. That's not even mentioning the events that just fall into a black hole: it's really more history than anything that dictates that Napoleon must wed Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria (Anna Mawn), in 1810, and she dutifully appears, but with such a weird spin on this political marriage—"I eagerly await receiving your cum, Your Majesty" isn't the verbatim quote, but it's honestly pretty close—that it feels insane that this could be her only scene and basically her only line in the entire movie. More tediously, though, it's a slurry of nearly-identical events happening over and over in the main phase of the film: a three-part dance of adultery, infertility, and joke sex.
The joke sex part is, oddly, where the movie just becomes nothing but its thesis: it really wants to get across the idea of Napoleon as an overgrown adolescent, and it does this in a couple of ways (it also has him occasionally throw tantrums where, for example, he loudly pouts that it isn't fair because Britain has boats, and that is pretty much a verbatim quote), but it especially likes to do it with joke sex, and when it has hinged its entire drama upon (again, almost verbatim) the problem of Josephine having great pussy but bad ovaries, it feels, I don't know, slightly incumbent upon the production to illustrate the mystical hold the former has upon our emperor beyond an overenthusiastic sound effect of thighs hitting buttocks and the awkward visual of quick clothes-on doggy-style humping while they both look slightly irritated and slightly bored.
If anything, the movie would do better just going without sex scenes (Ridley ain't Tony), but it's not like the dialogue scenes do any better. Scott's fairly opaque envisioning of Josephine does Kirby no favors—it's sort of like Scott wanted her to be enigmatic in her emotions but had absolutely no idea how to do that without just straight-up making it seem like she despises Napoleon, which, hell, might even be the intended point but, God, what a lousy way to make a movie about the trap of a transactional marriage, "Napoleon fought many campaigns (also his wife didn't like him)"—and it's an incoherent performance that draws you in mostly just because Kirby is so interestingly pretty and her twitchiness commands attention, but at least it means she's alive. At some point, the bubble on Phoenix has got to burst: he's not a good actor, or hasn't been one in a while. He is, now, little more than a set of tricks indicating an absence of a complete personality, which directors can use, typically for evil, sometimes for good, in movies that aren't about either forces of history or marriages. Scott clearly has fond memories of working with Phoenix on Gladiator, and that's fine, but Napoleon should probably not be "Commodus, but really boring," even if what you're going for is a similarly immature and emotionally-crippled emperor.
There's the most occasional flash of an artier, more evocative portrait of Napoleon's inarticulable ambitions in this— for instance, a weird, even out-of-place scene where he contemplates, Shelley-style, the remains of a pharaoh who's been forgotten for three thousand years—but the mode of Phoenix's performance is just whining about sex, or babies, or Russia's evasion of the Continental System, or whatever. His choices predominantly only involve his volume, and, mostly, Phoneix just locks himself into expressions where he looks like he's constantly smelling farts, or into an unreactivity adorned with little filigrees that I think are supposed to mean something about Napoleon's personality, or even his cognition, but the big, noticeable one ("Napoleon covers his ears in a very stereotyped and ritualized way") only ever actually means, "guns are loud." Which I, personally, already knew. Remarkably, that's pretty much the entire "people talking" part of this movie covered, and I think that's incredibly damning in its way, that a 157 minute movie dedicated to just two characters, which still might be overcounting, cannot ever find any way into their feelings, so that for minute after minute, hour after hour, it never figures out how (or why! or if!) Napoleon and Josephine relate to one another.
But who cares about that, you girl? What about the Ridley Scott epic war film, huh? Well, for the record, I cared; it's why I came to see Napoleon, notionally an epic romance, or at least an epic relationship drama. If I wanted to see Waterloo I'd just watch Waterloo, and in fact I did watch Waterloo, and this was not good for Ridley Scott's version of Waterloo, which, in fine 21st century Ridley Scott style, appears to have decided that because it rained on the morning of June 18th, 1815, the battle therefore happened that night around eight p.m. I would not go so far as to say this is Scott's most egregious abuse of poor Dariusz Wolski and the color correction tools that this talented cinematographer has at his disposal, not when The Last Duel is right there and when, being fair, a lot of this movie looks okay (drab and cold and soulless, but "okay"); but it might be—I say this with total sincerity—the most damage Scott has ever done to one of his movies with his idiotic late-career ideas about how sunlight in northern Europe is supposed to be reproduced on film. So, yes, these battles look like shit. Waterloo is swathed in day-for-night blue; Austerlitz is somehow worse, even if it has a better idea behind it, with armies appearing as what I'm sure Scott believed would be "phantoms out of the snow," but there is neither history nor mythicism to this image. It's been ground into the slurry of everything else, that it just feels like an unsuccessful attempt to hide how little epic production wound up in this still-quite-costly epic.
The closest Napoleon ever gets to that is the part that annoyed all the historical literalists out there—hell, it even tweaked my nose—regarding the Battle of the Pyramids, where Napoleon blows up the pyramids to shock-and-awe the Mamluks. It's incredibly stupid, but it is cool. Very little else is ever cool, despite the persistent sense that it should at least be cool, given that it's invariably framed within this embarrassing sort of child's idea of how Napoleonic warfare worked. It feels in all respects small and homogenous, like no battle involves more than a thousand men (which is undoubtedly multiplying Napoleon's extras corps by a factor of four or five), and with amazingly little of the specific tactics of any battle ever coming into play, except at Toulon, which is reasonably well-realized even if it treats "taking the high ground" as the insight of a once-in-a-century genius. But Austerlitz is abysmal in this regard, even beyond what it looks like, and almost offensively so, since Austerlitz is one of the easiest-to-explain examples of tactical and operational brilliance there is. (In fairness, maybe I underestimate how readily it translates to cinema, because "being easy to explain" didn't stop Sergei Bondarchuk, director of Waterloo, from doing an even worse version of Austerlitz than this one earlier in his career for War and Peace; but then, that's mainly because Scott can pretend his CGI is "winter" and Bondarchuk had to shoot his Austerlitz in summer so the Red Army didn't have to explain why a bunch of conscripts froze to death on behalf of a movie shoot. Sorry to sidetrack, Napoleon is really dull.)
Even when Scott is exploiting the iconography of these famous battles, it's devoid of impact: there's a kind of nice mobile camera around the infantry squares at Waterloo that somewhat, kind of feels like we're a cuirassier, without any of the sense of hopelessness that should trigger; and somehow this movie has the exactly wrong amount of Arthur, Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett), a character of absolutely no value to this story and not really even of any value to this not-even-a-summary presentation of Waterloo. (Meanwhile, we still spend twenty minutes on Waterloo, but before sitting down with the cast list for this review, I would not have bet money that Michel Ney (John Hollingworth) was even in this movie.*) The shattering of the ice at Austerlitz is at least heavily featured—it's possibly apocryphal, but this should never stop a filmmaker—but Scott punches it up in ways that actually only punch it down: not content with the specific cruelty of Napoleon's decision to drown thousands of fleeing Russians, CGI blood gets thrown all over the screen, surrendering the horrible, mournful beauty of this unique event for mere garishness and, well, artillery doing what artillery does. We know, we've already seen it, the movie practically starts out with a badly CGI'd horse exploding. Though it sums up the project: I think Napoleon liked this horse for some reason, but it's not very clear, nor is the movie all that interested in it.
*In disclosure, I did take a very ill-timed bathroom break that lost Kirby's last scene to me, too.