En theaters this November 22, Ridley Scott’s pave on Napoleon Bonaparte, with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, has continued to ignite the ire of French historians for several weeks. The public, seduced by the prospect of the gigantism of which the filmmaker is accustomed, could well give him a triumph… but nothing is decided!
Distributed on the big screen by Sony Pictures before its subsequent release on Apple TV+, this 28e feature film by the director of Duellistesd’Alien and of Gladiator will it be his battle of Austerlitz or his Waterloo? Our in-house swashbucklers in any case quarreled (amicably, of course) to settle this burning question: whether or not we should see this new film in the cinema. Napoleon ?
For: a pure cinema spectacle
Ouch! “Ouch! », our neighbors in Albion would say about the critical reception of Napoleon In France. Loaded with sabers drawn by numerous tricolor feathers, whether historians or film buffs, on the 28the Ridley Scott’s feature film is disconcerting, even horrifying, on this side of the Channel. His opponents attack him on some factual inaccuracies, on the waxy interpretation of Joaquin Phoenix and on a vision deemed degrading of the first consul, steeped in the revanchist British collective unconscious. Final blow of the (bi)horn to Ridley’s posterior: even the battle scenes would be flatly filmed! Don’t throw any more away! Don’t listen to the rigors and go see this extraordinary show, filled with authentic visions of pure cinema. Unheard of for some of them.
Certainly, Sir Scott had known better how to play great epic organs with his wonderful director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. A summit in which Ridley Scott merged the intimate and melancholy journey of the widowed crusader Balian of Ibelin with monumental clashes between the armies of Baldwin IV and Saladin in the Holy Land. Directed from a screenplay by David Scarpa (author for Scott of the scripts for All the money in the world et Gladiator 2), ce Napoleon, with its 2 hours 40 minutes, follows the same strategy: grafting onto an intimate structure – here, the tortured romance between the future emperor and Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby) – a mega show of which only Ridley has the secret. Let’s face it: victory is not complete.
At issue: major cuts made by the filmmaker in a much longer initial edit (3:30, 4:00 or 4:30 depending on the sources, to be discovered later on Apple TV+). Certain ellipses are felt and characters suddenly disappear from the plot. Witness that of Paul Barras, played by Tahar Rahim, evacuated after an hour, while we are not even sure of having noticed Ludivine Sagnier, mentioned in the credits in the role of Madame Tallien. Don’t worry, they will certainly be more present in the full version. The military confrontations – the storming of Fort Toulon, Austerlitz, La Moskova, Waterloo, etc. – also seem to alternate mechanically with the dialogue scenes intended to explore this portrait of Napoleon Iis. The dramaturgical progression and emotion of Kingdom of Heaven leave room here for a more clinical story, which keeps the viewer at a distance.
And yet, Napoleon does not dishonor, far from it, Ridley Scott’s CV. The artist has no equal when it comes to immersing us in striking historical reconstructions, from the first seconds of the film: the patient mounted on the scaffold of Marie-Antoinette to the sound of the revolutionary song “Ha ça ira”… Piaf version. Ridley Scott does not seek perfect accuracy, but perfection of immersion. We are there, we believe it, even in the improbable presence of Bonaparte in the crowd, a dark witness to the furies of the Terror which will fuel his obsession with a France restored to reason and order. Joaquin Phoenix is criticized for the stasis of his expressions. But between two shady postures, the actor on the contrary lets burst forth, in several moments, the torments and complexes which gnaw at the general’s soul, as well as his unfiltered love for Joséphine, expressed in his letters spoken in voice-over by the actor – “I love you beyond anything imaginable…”
L’ex-Caesar Commodus de Gladiator slips into his Napoleon the melancholy and the cracks that he himself carries from one role to another, but he also excels as a cold monster when he pulverizes the royalist rioters of 13 Vendémiaire with cannonballs. The work of Ridley Scott and his appointed cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (since Prometheus) on the positioning of the camera during the big battles is dizzying, sometimes in incredible wide shots worthy of Bondarchuk, sometimes up close to the cannonballs, again them, which tear the men, the horses, the frozen lake to pieces ‘Austerlitz…
Yes, Ridley Scott doesn’t care – or almost nothing – about Napoleon when it comes to internal politics. All that matters to him is the monarch’s instincts of conquest, death and love, which he does not fear to ridicule during two very embarrassing sex scenes with Joséphine. Napoleon is a confusing film, but regularly visually stunning and some new shots of which will remain engraved in the memory. “Men are better governed by their vices than by their virtues,” wrote the emperor in his War maxims and thoughts. Ridley Scott chose vice in the way he looked at Bonaparte, certainly by damaging our national pride in the process. It’s up to us to live with it. And enjoy the sumptuous spectacle.
Against: a caricatured Napoleon who is too old
Clumsy, sometimes timid and whiny, a brute the rest of the time, this is the portrait of the Emperor painted by Ridley Scott in his Napoleon. A disappointment when we remember that his very first film, The Duelists in 1977, inspired by the novel by Joseph Conrad The dual, undoubtedly remains one of the best ever made on the Empire. A fine and elegant work, facing, almost fifty years later, a Napoleon heavy and often caricatured.
There are, of course, historical errors – numerous but deliberate – already widely commented on by these « fucking historians » as Ridley Scott calls them in reaction. Let us accept his English vision of History in which Napoleon is considered the troublemaker heir to the Revolution which it is up to England, arbiter of monarchical elegance, to bring down. After all, Napoleon said: “Historical truth is often an agreed-upon fable” and we are all victims of our culture. But still: when Léa Salamé, on France Inter, asks the filmmaker if he prefers Napoleon or Bonaparte, the answer bursts out, in a grunt mixed with laughter: “Bonaparte, that gangster. »
So we’re starting from afar. Let’s move on from the impression of seeing a film edited with a chopper in which the scenes follow one another at very high speed, with no links between them, undoubtedly the price to pay for a film taken from the four hours originally made for Apple TV+. Napoleon evolves in a desert of secondary characters, yet largely valued in the other films which have been devoted to him, with the exception of Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby, the only success of the film. The same cannot be said of Joachin Phoenix’s game. Entrusting a 49-year-old actor with the role of the fiery twenty-four-year-old captain, winner of the siege of Toulon, does not work.
Hieratic, closed, sometimes seeming silly, violent, difficult to get into a story whose main character is not credible. There is, of course, the Ridley Scott brand, with brilliant but repetitive battle re-enactments. When he has a good plan – Prussians dying drowned in the icy ponds of Austerlitz, French horsemen falling into the English squares while failing to overthrow them during the Battle of Waterloo – he heavily abuses it.
Obviously, the political, cultural and civil work of the period is completely absent from the film as if Napoleon had only been a leader of thugs hungry for conquests. Finally, but this is understandable for a native, England, which subsidized all the regimes opposed to the Revolution, appears to be the justice of the peace of the period. Referring to the age of Ridley Scott – almost 86 years old – the New Yorker, in his review of the film, takes up the words of Tom Rothman, boss of Sony Pictures, distributor of the feature film in theaters, believing that “Ridley Scott is the best argument in favor of a second term for Joe Biden”. Worrying nonetheless.
Napoleon, by Ridley Scott (2:40). In theaters November 22.