starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett
written by David Scarpa
directed by Ridley Scott
by Walter Chaw I wish Ridley Scott's Napoleon was weirder, kinkier, as perverse as it seems like Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the diminutive emperor, wants it to be. I wish it had more time for his relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), who, in this incarnation, is cast as a kind of succubus: a barren nymphomaniac who pulls up her bloomers and spreads her legs during her courtship with Napoleon and tells him if he looks at her holiest of holies, he'll never stop wanting it. It's deeply weird, is what I'm saying, and there's a version of this film that is just ninety minutes of these two actors, ready for anything, going full-tilt boogie. Maybe he puts on a dog collar, and she steps on him; then he goes out and murders a few tens of thousands of Egyptians while firing cannons at the Great Pyramids. In that Napoleon, however, we wouldn't see the million-dollar battle sequences, but instead a series of disturbing tableaux vivant of codependency and sadomasochistic sex play ending in the same title card tallying up the number of people who died (over three million) because of this creepy little freak. "Him?" we would marvel--and then consider that maybe it's only damaged men, damaged in exactly this way, who would consider the military conquest of the world a thing to be desired, possible to accomplish, and more, possible for them to accomplish. But, alas, that's not the sort of movie Ridley Scott makes.
No, the sort of movie Ridley Scott makes is Napoleon--or Kingdom of Heaven, or 1492, or Robin Hood: massive, lumbering machinas that will occasionally display tantalizing hints of an iconoclastic peculiarity one suspects he has otherwise smothered in its cradle. I don't think he likes eccentrics. He's attracted to megalomaniacs (even his sole dalliance with horror is through Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter), but he can't quite resist exalting them as fascinating in a good way rather than fascinating in a mutant, uncomfortable way. I wonder if Scott doesn't have some imagined bonhomie with megalomaniacs. I'm reminded of the joke about why sharks don't eat lawyers: professional courtesy. It's not uncommon to celebrate Crusaders and conquistadors as mythological Übermensch, although it lacks literacy and, frankly, curiosity. For all that, I had great hopes for Napoleon, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, that maybe Napoleon, one of England's great historical bogeys, wouldn't get Sir Ridley's unquestioning admiration. The second is the casting of Phoenix, who is responsible for one of the great off-kilter performances in a Ridley Scott film as the vile, simpering Commodus in Gladiator. Alas, the battle sequences are so majestic that one can't help but equate their majesty with Napoleon's tactics. And for as far as Phoenix is ready to go, Scott isn't prepared to meet him there.
Here, Scott, after his confusingly interesting one-two of The Last Duel and House of Gucci, reverts to his obvious mastery of brawn over his equally obvious deficiencies of brain and heart. His films tend to be declarations and not questions. And for as many masterpieces as he's made, he's made many more completely forgettable, emotionally inert pictures. Napoleon lands somewhere between those polarities. It's a film that rips itself in half trying to psychoanalyze Napoleon as a deviant submissive while still presenting him as a military genius. This isn't Scott offering complexity--it's him not realizing he's contradicted himself. He's too good at making war rapturous to make the architects of war somehow unheroic for the beauty sprung from their steel and fire. For Scott, Napoleon is the literal manifestation of the Freudian idea of the male sex drive; it's a cartoon illustration of a difficult theory. Watch Scott play with Napoleon's bicorn hat: how it's always falling off, cockeyed, ill-fitting, being put on other people's heads, getting in the way as he comes in for a kiss. When he crowns himself emperor, he can't fit the crown over the gold laurels he's already wearing as the self-declared incarnation of Caesar. The image that most encapsulates this as Scott having a sense of humour is a shot of Napoleon from behind during his death in exile--his bicorned silhouette slumping until it slowly...slowly...tips over like a paper boat capsizing into a sewer grate. I was reminded of the similar albeit superior, wittier, lighter hat-play in the Coens' Miller's Crossing, Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, and countless films noir, where the loss of a hat is representative of a loss of power. Of castration. In Scott's hands, metaphor becomes a jackhammer.
The real reason I had hope for Napoleon was because of how much I liked The Last Duel, a take on the "wife's tale" segment of Rashomon in which the imagined heroism of two duelling men is seen, from the perspective of a woman, as ridiculous, pumped-up machismo enflamed by male sexual jealousy. It's a meticulously detailed period epic driven by a sly, knowing play on sexual mores, and though it may be dressed in a hundred pounds of period-accurate armour, it's deft and agile just the same. We'd seen flashes of this sort of thing in Scott's Thelma & Louise, of course, but I had long credited screenwriter Callie Khouri for that. Could The Last Duel be an indication that an old dog was learning new tricks after all? I mean, the other Scott film from 2021, House of Gucci, is spectacularly terrible but in a way that's entirely different from the healthy roster of other Scott disasterpieces. Before it, I can't think of another Scott picture that could so righteously be called camp. It all boded well for Napoleon, right? The sex stuff? The camp? Phoenix and Kirby are on board. Phoenix's Napoleon makes insinuating whimpering/whining noises while he dry humps a doorframe until a creepily maternal Josephine bends over and invites him in for some really bad sex. What if Scott were more fixated on this mess than on being the filmmaking equivalent of a warlord? What if he spent more time with Josephine, who, after she's shamed for taking a few lovers in the public eye, makes Napoleon admit that he's a useless, dickless nothing without her, and it's due to her that he's able to command armies to victory, lead them to their doom, and sentence himself to a pair of exiles when he refuses to be the victim of his own bloodlust and no one quite knows what to do with him. Napoleon and Josephine are riveting in a film that isn't interested in them as much as it is in hitting the impressive battle highlights along the line of accepted history--a questionable pursuit when Wikipedia is right there.