REVIEW. “Three edges my hat has” – the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte is known for his amusing hats, his legendary height, and his unrestrained love letters dedicated to his wife Josephine, but also for leading three million men to their deaths. Ridley Scott’s biopic is as grandiose as it is petty, self-ironic, and painfully dull.
Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Napoleon Bonaparte is, of course, brilliant. His pure appearance is a contrast to all the military leaders in film history. With his dry, hissing voice, peculiar twitches, and natural ability to portray overwhelming displays of affection. Authentic and worthy of his (probably) upcoming Oscar nomination.
The problem is not him. It’s Ridley Scott. Phoenix as Napoleon in a Roy Andersson or Yorgos Lanthimos adaptation would have been enjoyable for the soul. In a version where the pitch-black laughter tickles close to the breaking point and bubbles up to the surface. Where the clumsiness of men and the irrational fear of living up to the caricature of oneself permeate every frame.
At times, that’s also what “Napoleon” does, but Ridley Scott effectively kills this nerve with the strangest love story of the year and extravagantly staged, grand, and bloody clashes. Men against men.
Napoleon’s relationship with his first wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is incredibly problematic. Not only because of the way they have tried to portray it as a passionate, equal love affair (where she obviously, and indeed, initially did not have particularly strong feelings for her husband). Partly because of tedious sex scenes where she is penetrated hard from behind without foreplay. But also because he calls her a slut and comments that mistresses are more attractive than she is because they cry less.
She is in a prison (marriage in the 1790s style). He is free to do as he pleases (emperor in the 1790s style). The film still tries to portray their relationship as romantic. And sure, if we lean on the lessons from “The Diary,” the quantity of love letters is crucial for a relationship’s health status. (However, if you doubt it, Ridley Scott has thrown in a couple of beautiful white swans in the background to portray their pure love.) They don’t fool me, though.
And despite Napoleon being one of the most researched men in history, we never get really close to him. It’s like Ridley Scott has tried to emulate a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary, which only results in me being indifferent to Napoleon’s fate.
Despite impressive acting and visually masterful battles, I find myself more fascinated by the horses, the trump joke that explodes into pieces, and the doves that have pooped on Tsar Alexander the First’s throne. More interested in all these nameless ones who have lost their lives. Of the three million men that Napoleon sent to their deaths. And I wonder if in 2023 one can make a film about a white warlord without adding any new elements: more satire, empathy, equal passion, robots, or at least really aggressive swans.
I would actually much rather have seen a film about Napoleon’s milliner. Or a horse. Or about one of all these French lapdogs where the nobility has been relegated to the background. Depraved and self-pitying. Because it’s incredibly boring to witness yet another man in a funny hat perform feats while having to smother his insignificance with a woman’s tenderness, who, in turn, is just dismissive enough to be simultaneously arousing.
No, it’s time to shift the focus to all the horses that have died due to men’s hubris and all the dogs that have provided the repressed nobility with unconditional love when not even their spouses have managed to maintain the illusion any longer.