Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 22, 2023 8:54 pm 
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"Cherchez la femme"

Ridley Scott, who is eighty-five, has made that one more big historical epic before he retires, tackling the movies' favorite historical leader, Napoleon. Achieving such a herculean feat at this advanced age may mean more to him than whether we watch it or not - which may come in handy if we don't. An impressive film for its battles, settings, authentic costumes, and painterly recreations of historic moments, Scott's Napoleon doesn't sing and doesn't swing. It moves by starts and stops. Its central love affair, between Napoleon and Josephine with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, screams for our attention, but the relationship doesn't completely convince, although both are very good, and this is one of Phoenix's best roles. Certainly Ridley Scott's skeleton key to the forever-depicted Napoleon's life is a version of "cherchez la femme": the woman in his life explains it. This is, then, a sort of feminist interpretation. Contemporary audiences may latch onto this - though the idea of montaging Napoleon's love life with his battles and leaving out the political dimension may look cockeyed to straitlaced historians.

For all the grandeur and production values, the scenes just don't quite click. I longed for moments like the compulsively watchable long opening banquet scene in Roberto Rossellini's 1966 film for French television, La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ("The Taking of Power by Louis XIV"). There is a film that was probably made on a shoestring, that may be of dubious accuracy, but that feels stunningly real and specific as to so many details we could not have imagined. I wanted to be there when Scott was shooting Napoleon and say imperiously, "Surprise me!" because that's what Rossellini does - though when filmmakers try to do that with historical epics they too generally wind up doing something dumb or too attention-grabbing.

Rossellini had the advantage of a relatively narrow time-scheme, while Scott takes on Napoleon's entire career. But why did he have to do that, and siphon it into a two-and-a-half-hour feature film? A biopic by any other name is still a biopic. Part of why this film doesn't quite work is that there was clearly a great deal of "Director's Cut" material and the editing down to this length was a strain, causing pacing issues many have noted.

Scott is doing all these battles, each one better than the last, but he's not much interested in Napoleon as a leader or canny politician. In fact - this is the greatest weakness - he and his writer Robert Scarpa don't make it very clear how the man rose to fame and power. The publicity says he "came from nothing and achieved everything," neither of which is true; and his coming from the minor nobility - and so not "nothing" - is left out. Nor do they spell out the forces that led to his being exiled when he failed in battle. We do get a full picture of his effort to have a son and how it was decided that he must divorce Josephine to do so - and all the letters, and the jealousy over her taking a lover while he was off winning wars and their lifelong friendship. The love story is there, but undermined by all the rants and the crude sex scenes.

And here we should mention, because Vanessa Kirby has a pronounced English accent and Phoenix is American, that this is another big new anglophone film like Michael Mann's current Ferrari, that's retro because everybody's speaking the wrong language, which is likely to rub sophisticated audiences the wrong way. Certainly some French critics have registered their protest. Le Monde, no less, says Scott shows us "two camps that speak the same language (English), which is disturbing." Maybe Napoleon will be made available dubbed in French on platforms. But dubbing is its own kind of distortion.

There's a major visual complaint too. This is an epic and there are all those magnificent spectacles, the muskets and horses, the pouring rain, the tents, the snow, the complex deployment of troops, many - potentially - terrific scenes. But they are curiously under-lit. This is a common feature of today's post-digital filmmaking. Is this "natural light"? But wait: it's a movie! We're sitting in the dark watching it. We need some light on the screen. We get that a lot of the time when the French were doing battle against the Austrians, the Russians, or the English the weather was gloomy. (Mark Asch in Film Comment cannily observes that Scott uses this "as an excuse to darken and degrade images to "mask CGI.") But it often seems rather a lot of money has been wasted making a scene we can barely see. (This is not to be confused with the richly moody, polluted bad weather of Blade Runner, though it may be as close as Scott gets here to the Rossellini authenticity effect.)

Napoleon winds up leaving one feeling disappointed and rather depressed. It's always sad to walk out of a movie that should have been better. Scott's film also presents the arc of Napoleon's life as a mournful one. He wins battles; he becomes emperor; but he can't produce an heir with the woman he loves, the thing he wants most, what all the battles were for. For all his accomplishments, after all the glory, Napoleon winds up in disgrace and in exile, on a remote island. The loneliness and defeat are not downplayed here.

History buffs will have much more to say, and we will learn if they are delighted or infuriated. On "History Extra" online, an article, "Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: how accurate is the movie? The real history explained" shows that while the film follows legend at times, it is quite accurate at some of the moments that may seem most far-fetched. It was an incredible life.

Though it's not a success, I do not regret my two and a half hours at the cineplex with Ridley Scott's Napoleon. We must have a lot of time for a director who has made classics of the range of Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise - and quite a few other interesting films besides, many of a grand and challenging nature. This time again he tried. If he didn't quite make it, the battle was nonetheless bravely fought.

Among many actors, Tahar Rahim (Jacques Audiard's discovery in the brilliant A Prophet) is featured as revolutionary figure Paul Barras, and Rupert Everett plays a very haughty Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon, 158 mins., premiered in Paris Nov. 14, 2023. AlloCiné press rating 2.9 (58%) (Scott responded "The French don't even like themselves"). US theatrical release Nov. 22, 2023. Metacritic rating: 63%.


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