'Napoleon': Ridley Scott's dazzling, bizarre biopic is a 'triomphe'

The brave of Austerlitz.

1. A moniker given by Napoleon Bonaparte to the elite Grand Armée soldiers who survived his brilliant and devastating victory over combined Austrian and Russian forces on Dec. 2, 1805.

2. Those hardy filmgoers who can stomach Ridley Scott’s portrayal of that battle in “Napoleon,” his new movie…

That portrayal, like much of the rest of the epic film, is magnificently crafted, emotionally brutal, and ever so slightly ahistorical. All told the result is a mesmerizing journey through the life and times of one of history’s true giants.

“Napoleon,” which stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, retains a visceral emotional immediacy even as it covers a broad sweep of history, zooming in and out on the life and times of its subject. With a fittingly Tolstoyan flourish, Scott nimbly fuses the grandiose operatics of Napoleon’s military endeavors (the highlights from Toulon to Waterloo) with the parlor-room tumult of Napoleon’s all-consuming passion for his first wife, the assertive and enigmatic Josephine (played by the superb Vanessa Kirby), whom he loves and loses many times. The lens shifts from a bird’s eye view of decades-long political changes in post-revolutionary France to a peephole glimpse at the Emperor’s mercurial private behavior, and in so doing remarkably loses little of its clarity of purpose and sharpness of insight.

Scott and his screenwriter, David Scarpa, achieve this with a smart and simple back-and-forth structure; it’s a sensible way of tackling a subject so larger than life as to be almost impossible to capture in a coherent narrative. Inevitably, of course, this approach leaves out a lot of rich and crucial history; seismic political developments—nothing short of the French Revolution and its aftermath and ripple effects across Europe—are a sideshow. Historical figures of considerable significance—including Talleyrand, Alexander I, Sieyes, and Robespierre— are more or less sidelined (Ouch). It’s necessary, though; otherwise, the film would be a cacophony, not a symphony (after all, Napoleon is the man Beethoven dedicated his third one to).

Although at times this turns what could be Napoleon Complex into Napoleon Simplified, overall the film is plotted and paced deftly and with considerable panache. In terms of the craft, especially the battle scenes, it is awe-inspiring. The sounds of cannonballs cracking open ice and horses whinnying in fright knotted up my insides (such levels of equine peril have not been reached since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”) The aforementioned Austerlitz, in particular, is one of the most breathtaking sequences in a movie that I’ve seen in a good long while, and the best war scene in a movie since the stirring climax of Sam Mendes’s “1917.” “Napoleon” was shot by Dariusz Wolski (who also did “The Martian”) and the score is by Martin Phipps (of “The Crown”). Those guys know what they are doing: the attention to period craftsmanship and coherent artistic vision are extraordinary.

In the early 1970s, Stanley Kubrick was reportedly hellbent on making a Napoleon biopic of his own. It never materialized; perhaps Kubrick’s infamously obsessive exactitude about period detail wore some collaborators down (apparently he owned 276 books about Monsieur Bonaparte). Scott’s research team was (fortunately for them, I suppose) given considerable leeway. Frankly, whether the finer points of military strategy are rendered dutifully is a matter for the War College, not the box office, and, as particular as I am to historical fidelity in fiction, I was won over by the sheer power of the battle scenes, which are sublime evocations of the horrors of war. 

          Kubrick wanted to cast Jack Nicholson as Napoleon, which led me to wonder: Joaquin Phoenix also played the Joker, so is there some connection between the laughing villain and the dour little Napoleon? Moreover, is there something secretly funny about Napoleon? Surely Napoleon’s life— in its mixture of the miniature and the monumental— has an inherently cartoonish quality. The notion of a decidedly larger-than-life five-foot-four man (whatever the average height of Frenchmen at the time) conquering just about all of Europe and subjecting it to his every whim, is— now that we are well removed from the tragedy wrought by the Napoleonic Wars — somewhat irrepressibly amusing. To my delight, Scott and Phoenix recognized this, melding absurdity with grandiosity to great effect.

Take the scene in which Napoleon, during his Egyptian campaign, mounts a footstool to get a better look at a mummy (no doubt some long-dead Ozymandian type) recently awoken from comfortable repose in a gilt sarcophagus at Mr. Bonaparte’s behest. Phoenix gives a wonderfully impenetrable, scrunched gaze at the figure (one he repeats brilliantly throughout the film). Phoenix invites us to wonder: what on earth is going on inside this man’s head? Is it impossibly grand musings about his role in human history? Or just eternal boredom? It’s a sublime moment, but it might have been heavy-handed if not tempered with a little bit of humor: the mummy falls sideways as Napoleon tries to examine its features. Perhaps there’s nothing meditative here, just an adult child tinkering with an exciting toy box. Look in my works all ye mighty and be amused.

It is for this reason that Phoenix’s decidedly out-there performance, with all its wild creative swings, ultimately succeeds. He gives Bonaparte no more nor less than his due, inflating the myth of the man while simultaneously bringing him down to almost painfully mortal size. We’re left wondering, “Why him?” but also understanding very well indeed the psychology of epic power and the lovelessness at the rarefied top. Phoenix gives a big brush performance on the big canvas that Scott (who went to art school) provides him, much like the French court artist Jacques-Louis David — who painted Napoleon’s coronation (David is depicted, brush in hand, at that pivotal moment in the film)—did for the real Napoleon.

In Ridley Scott’s first-ever film, Napoleon loomed large off screen. Now, twenty-seven films later, he takes center stage. While that first film, “The Duellists” (about feuding offers in the Grand Armée), very much has its merits—as a character study and as a delightful feast of swordplay—“Napoleon” brought home extraordinarily well how Ridley Scott (the man who made “Alien,” Gladiator and “Blade Runner” for crying out loud!) paints best on the biggest canvases and is most skilled in executing his vision with the most striking colors and the biggest brushes at his disposal. He’s Jacques-Louis David in the director’s chair.


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