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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Napoleon"

Film still of Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023).
Napoleon, Scott Free Productions/Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures, 2023.
Film still of Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon (2023).

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

What is it about the story of Napoleon that has bewitched so many great filmmakers? In the silent era, French filmmaker Abel Gance intended to exhaustively detail the emperor’s life in a series of six films, eventually producing a single 1927 epic that was hacked to pieces over the years. Preservationist Kevin Brownlow spent a majority of his own career attempting to restore Gance’s film to its former glory; after painstaking work, the most complete print now runs 5 ½ hours. And in the late 1960s, Stanley Kubrick became obsessed researching Napoleon for a movie that never got made.

Now here comes Ridley Scott with a disarmingly loony biopic simply titled Napoleon, and I found myself thinking a lot about Gance and Kubrick while I watched it. Gance’s Napoleon is a milestone of cinematic technique, but it’s also a hagiography. Kubrick, who hated the Gance film for its political simplicity, would no doubt have cast a more jaundiced eye toward history, something he’d later do in his 18th-century drama Barry Lyndon.

Scott’s approach to Napoleon is closer in spirit to Kubrick’s, and his film has a lot in common with Barry Lyndon: Both films are stately historical epics dripping with contempt—and maybe a dash of pity—for their subjects, starring impossibly contemporary Americans who make no effort to disappear into 18th-century European milieu.

Like Ryan O’Neal’s long-misunderstood turn as Barry Lyndon, Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon is a deliberate sore thumb; his very presence underlines Napoleon’s singular strangeness. He doesn’t attempt an accent, and he mumbles a lot of his lines. He’s always pouting like a child and throwing fits. By the end of the film, Scott shows him interacting almost exclusively with children, as if all the grown-ups in his life have had enough of him. It’s a gutsy comic performance, one that I imagine a lot of people aren’t going to like, and it makes even more explicit the themes of little men and their impotent rage that Scott explored in his underrated The Last Duel.

At the same time, Napoleon is an undeniable tactical genius, best exemplified in the harrowing sequence depicting the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz. Perhaps knowing that his personality ruffles feathers, Napoleon barricades himself behind more even-tempered men who do his political bidding. The movie is just as fascinated with Napoleon’s messy, borderline masochistic relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which he attacks with as much diplomatic cunning and hotheaded bluster as he does warfare.

The film begins as Marie Antoinette is being led to the guillotine and ends as Napoleon, exiled for the second time, finally slumps over, dead and alone. In between, the screenplay by David Scarpa barrels through history, from Napoleon’s reign as emperor to his ransacking of Russia, from his first exile on the island of Elba to his eventual defeat at Waterloo. (Scott, the king of the director’s cut, says a version that’s two hours longer than what’s currently in theaters will eventually make its way to streaming.) It also fudges a lot of facts, something that has raised the hackles of many historians.

So the movie doesn’t work as a cinematic textbook, nor as a complete portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte; it’s somehow both ungainly and incomplete at the same time. But as a drawing-room satire of manners about megalomania and the absurdity of hierarchical power structures, it’s a big hunk of tawdry, darkly funny, occasionally dazzling melodrama.

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Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.