“Please don’t wash, will arrive in three days” wrote Napoleon Bonaparte to his wife Josephine once upon a time. The man liked a strong smell, and that’s part of the historical record. Reactions to Ridley Scott’s (Alien, The Last Duel) Napoleon (2023) have been divisive. Some say it’s a stinker. I think it’s very good but could punch a little harder. What we all agree on is that you can smell an even better director’s cut wafting off the perfectly composed screen.
If you’ve got the developed palette, you can find truncated plotlines or omitted details. If your dad who reads Ron Chernow biographies asks you if it’s good, know that he won’t notice and will have a rousing good time. It is exceptionally rare these days, despite ballooning production costs, to find a period film so well made from shot composition to costume design to set design and VFX accentuations. The death of Hollywood’s middle class in the streaming era has led to a shortage of knowledge on costume making, atmospheric details, and even cunning carpentry, but, by all appearances, Ridley Scott collected who’s left on an ark and took them back in time to the Napoleonic era. Everyone who wasn’t working on Oppenheimer (2023) must have been here instead. Constantly, the camera will land on a shot that makes you go “That’s one of the best shots I’ve ever seen,” only for it to happen again a few minutes later. Filmed in anamorphic widescreen, Joaquin Phoenix’s (Beau is Afraid, The Master) Napoleon often looks impossibly grand framed in two-shots with the Sphynx or some French town that matters for the next 15 minutes that you’ll never hear about again.
Napoleon’s two biggest surprises are just how episodic it is, and how funny it is. Calling it Ridley Scott’s Barry Lyndon (1975) is selling both films short, but it could be said in the same way that you could say The Game (1997) is David Fincher’s (Se7en, Fight Club) Vertigo (1958). Joaquin’s Napoleon is, in short, an oaf, a good general whose desperation gives him an edge in battle, which he and the world around him mistake for genius, and victim to an Oedipus complex that has left him socially awkward and stunted. He may not be short, but his temper is, and it’s hilarious. The rest of the film is not. He is a comedic character trapped in a drama, which is more than likely the heart of the film’s divisive reaction. I am very on-board with that. Others aren’t. The film tracks Napoleon through his life with his wife Josephine as he fails upward to glory, succeeding in battle and weirding everybody out along the way.
“You think you’re such a great man because you have boats!”
Opposite Joaquin is Vanessa Kirby (Mission Impossible: Fallout, Pieces of a Woman) as Josephine, a widowed aristocrat who seduces and falls in love with this powerful weirdo as a way of securing social and financial security in the wake of the French Revolution. As a woman at the turn of the 19th century, and as a character in this film, it is her responsibility to bear Napoleon an heir to his throne. Despite what the grand sweep of history trailers may sell, this is what the film is really about, not the impressive battles. Napoleon is in two abusive marriages, one with Josephine, and one with France itself, and he’s having trouble getting either one to generate a lasting legacy.
“Destiny has brought me this lamchop.”
While Apple may be deceptively focusing on the battles of Napoleon to sell the film, the fights are incredible, and the main selling point for seeing the film in theaters instead of waiting for streaming. Early in the film, Napoleon attempts a nighttime raid on a fort in what will probably go down as one of the best-shot night scenes of all time, and, like all night scenes, it will look significantly worse compressed to hell on your Roku Express and LCD living room set up. On the silver screen, however, it is immaculate and riveting. Rimlit by moonlight and torches, this sequence should be used by ARRI to sell their cameras for the next decade. In the later French court sequences of the film, if Barry Lyndon may be evoked again, it strikes one just how much easier the digital workflow makes shooting these window-lit palaces than it was for Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut). Famously, new lenses were crafted for shooting on film in those low-light environments, creating that film’s dream-like interiors full of shallow focus. Today, Ridley Scott is able to use the digital camera sensor to shoot in the same locations with total control and every option available to him. And so we see a torch-lit night scene like we never have before as Napoleon whirls about in confusion and excitement.
There are other stand out battles, such as the super cool Battle of Austerlitz, but it’s this first one that sets the tone for the whole film. After the battle, Napoleon will be weird and funny, but during it, the vicious violence of war and the consequences of his actions will be laid bare in gruesome ways.
“I am not insecure.”
Napoleon is the latest in a trilogy of films from Ridley Scott about the danger and absurdity of the men who wield great power, and how their relationships with women mirror those they have with their kingdoms or companies. As in House of Gucci (2022) and The Last Duel (2022), the contrast between these men and their situation can at times feel incongruous, but I argue, and I think Scott argues, this incongruity comes not from these films, but from the external myths we bring with us to the screening room. The cultural myth of “Great Men” with a capital “g” is hard to shake, whether they be “genius” CEO or badass warriors of old. Napoleon was not a badass, he was an insecure crazy person with a compelling quality to him that let him become very dangerous to his wife and the world. He’d fit in just fine with the modern politician, and that should terrify us as well as draw our pity. Joaquin Phoenix gets that, and that’s why this film is worth your time, both during its theatrical run, and hopefully when the director’s cut hits Apple TV+ afterward.
In theaters November 22nd, 2023.
Available on Apple TV+ TBD.
For more information, head to the official Sony Pictures Napoleon webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.