“History,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, “is a set of lies agreed upon.” That sound you hear 200 years later is Ridley Scott banging his fist on a table with appreciation before shooting a scene in which the man known as “The Nightmare of Europe” literally fires a cannon at the Great Pyramid of Giza.
In the present day, the 85-year-old director’s press tour for his latest film, Napoleon, has been a tour de force of white-hot fury not unlike his subject’s military campaigns: a vicious, take-no-prisoners assault against anyone sweating the integrity or veracity of his latest $200 million epic. After initially instructing any dubious by-the-book biographers—or egghead TikTok stars—to “get a life” instead of nit-picking Napoleon’s script, Scott doubled down in a riotous interview with The Sunday Times. “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the f*** up then.’” He went even further in a chat with the BBC, responding to a series of negative reviews in the French press by pointing out that “the French don’t even like themselves.”
[Extreme Maximus Decimus Meridius voice] Are you not entertained? The image of Sir Ridley as Hollywood’s most indefatigable and cantankerous elder craftsman suits him, and in both its overbearing scope and goofy humor, Napoleon is clearly the work of a man who couldn’t give an f-word of your choice—a fig or a fuck, flying or otherwise—about his critics. Although the fact that Scott showed up for his recent New Yorker profile brandishing a 30-year-old copy of the issue containing Pauline Kael’s infamous pan of Blade Runner suggests that the chip on his shoulder didn’t get there on its own. Blade Runner has endured beyond its middling reception, of course, and yet Kael’s kicker—suggesting that Scott’s chill, methodical style aligned him with the synthetic humans at his story’s center—is one of those observations that splits the difference between genuine insight and mean-spirited mockery.
It’s also long since been debunked: Nobody could watch Thelma & Louise or The Last Duel and think their maker heartless—the latter is probably Scott’s most powerful and probing work in years, although what it really proves is what skeptics have said all along, that he’s only as good or as bad as his scripts. The question of emotion is worth asking when it comes to Napoleon, which is really three films in one: a strapping old-school action blockbuster, a tragic story of star-crossed lovers, and a determined deconstruction of great-man-of-history narratives. On the one hand, most directors couldn’t manage even one of these modes if they tried. On the other, Scott’s determination to live up to his own virile legend sometimes leads him to overextend himself. He wants to have Napoleon’s triple-layer cake and eat it too, and he can’t.
Speaking of cake: Napoleon begins with the decapitation of Marie Antoinette, whose stoic fearlessness en route to the guillotine is one of the many, many details in David Scarpa’s screenplay that the egghead brigade has taken issue with. The point of the scene isn’t really the queen’s intestinal fortitude, however; rather, it’s in the way that Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation of the erstwhile Monsieur Bonaparte is framed as a mere witness to history—a face in the crowd whose deadpan expression in the midst of seismic social upheaval may or may not contain multitudes. To the extent that Napoleon is a character study, it’s primarily fascinated with the gap between its subject’s tactical brilliance on the battlefield and his almost total lack of charisma off it. Hunched, awkward, and easily distracted, the Corsican general is hopeless at navigating the corridors of power; he’s not much of an orator, and his response to talk of politics is to nod off sitting up. But stick him on a horse and give him some pliable countrymen, and he’s a dynamo, the sort of mercurial asset that France’s power brokers were happy to cultivate until he finally transcended them, parlaying his military victories into a political coup that embedded him as emperor and set him off on a trail of bloody, ultimately self-destructive success.
The revenge of the nerd is a fairy tale with modern resonance, and it’s theoretically perfect for Phoenix, with his talent for playing antisocial misfits. And while the idea of a Jokerfied Napoleon has potential, there’s a fine line between intensity and shtick, and in the absence of careful direction, Phoenix leans a bit too heavily on the latter. “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” this Napoleon rages at a British diplomatic rival, sounding less like the supreme commander than John C. Reilly in Step Brothers. Such outbursts are undeniably funny—another dinner table rant literalizes the hamminess of the film’s dramaturgy by referring, straight-facedly, to a “pork chop of destiny”—but they never feel fully integrated into the action. There’s a reading to be made that these and other jokes at the protagonist’s expense—flashes of cowardice; hints of sexual impotence—are a way of cutting Napoleon down to size, humiliating him more than Alexander the Great or ABBA ever could. But satire has to be decisive, and Scott simply can’t commit to the bit. The reason a movie like Barry Lyndon works is because it picks a wickedly picaresque wavelength and rides it for three hours without wavering; more often than not, Scott’s just brazenly throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
Where Phoenix chugs around industriously in search of a clearly defined character, Vanessa Kirby skillfully underplays her role as Josephine, whom the movie tries to regard simultaneously as a smooth, self-conscious seductress and Napoleon’s deep-down soulmate. It’s a contradiction that the actress inhabits as best she can, scoring laughs in the early scenes off of Josephine’s skepticism that the diminutive man trying to win her hand is worth her time, as well as with the speed and ease with which she renders him a cuckold. (The sex scenes in the movie are all played for sleazy comedy; it’s as if the production hired an anti-intimacy coordinator to help choreograph the action.) As the film goes on, though, Josephine is increasingly meant to be a tragic figure, first thrown over and then exiled in favor of a younger and more fertile model. The melancholy around her situation never quite coalesces, and her scenes are so ridiculously grim that you expect Mel Brooks and the History of the World: Part I gang to burst in and start riffing. There’s no regret, no tenderness, no residue of passion grand or otherwise—just the grinding of gears as the film cuts back and forth between Napoleon on the field and Josephine on her deathbed. Ideally, it’d be hard to tell how Napoleon and Josephine truly feel about each other because they’re both addicted to power gaming. These sections of Napoleon underwhelm, though, because they’re underdeveloped—carefully staged and yet fuzzy around the edges.
The places where Scott achieves clarity—occasionally to startling effect—are in the battle sequences, which unlock his undeniable gift for scale: He’s one of those directors who just naturally sees in wide screen and who understands how to use landscape as a character in and of itself (think of the surreally lunar back-roads backdrops of Thelma & Louise, or the prologue of Prometheus, which made even the Garden of Eden look alien and sinister). They also unlock his sadism. This may be the first period war film to ever show a horse being perforated by a cannonball fired at close range, and there’s also a bit involving a percussionist being blown up that skirts Monty Python territory. At least two of these set pieces feel like instant contenders for the Ridley Hall of Fame: the tense nighttime Siege of Toulon, in which Napoleon manages to hijack British artillery and turn it against its owners, and the extended, terrifying depiction of the Battle of Austerlitz, with hordes of infantrymen sinking beneath the surface of a frozen lake under the weight of their own armor. Here, the terrible, tactile materiality of bodies and weapons mixes with nightmarishly morbid metaphysics. The ingeniousness of Napoleon’s strategy exists in a gaping moral vacuum, and a tingle of Kubrickian critique creeps into the proceedings: Is this cruelty what it takes to shape the world in one’s image? Who would want to do such a thing? And who would want to watch—or make—a movie about it?
It’s possible that Scott is trying to create a space for humane contemplation, and that the real point of this movie called Napoleon is to think about all of the lives—most of them French, in truth—sacrificed on the altar of his ambition and ego. The biopic equivalent of a Trojan horse. When he hasn’t been complaining about his movie’s reception, he’s been whispering about the existence of a four-and-a-half-hour cut that might theoretically thread the needle on this count, just like the extended version of Kingdom of Heaven improved on its theatrical incarnation. But even if Napoleon Uncut surfaces and turns out to be better than its predecessor, it’s hard to imagine it’ll fix the fundamental problem, which has less to do with structure or craft than sensibility. It’s not that Scott lacks a sense of irony about his work but that he’s a hostage to his maniacal, virtuoso professionalism. The same irrepressible drive that allowed him to prepare and release four movies in the time it took Martin Scorsese to complete Killers of the Flower Moon is what keeps him from arriving at something comparably profound and self-reflexive, or confrontational. When Scorsese wants us to think about the politics of representation or the casualties of American exceptionalism, he finds a way to distill that complicity and confusion into a series of formal and rhetorical challenges. Faced with a similar challenge, Scott simply splashes some statistics on-screen. He gets the job done and moves on to the next one.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.