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Thread: NAPOLEON (Ridley Scott 2023)

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    NAPOLEON (Ridley Scott 2023)

    RIDLEY SCOTT: NAPOLEON (2023)


    VANESSA KIRBY AND JOAQUIN PHONIX IN NAPOLEON

    "Cherchez la femme"

    Ridley Scott, who is eighty-five, has made that one more big historical epic before he retires, tackling the movies' favorite historical leader, Napoleon. Achieving such a herculean feat at this advanced age may mean more to him than whether we watch it or not - which may come in handy if we don't. An impressive film for its battles, settings, authentic costumes, and painterly recreations of historic moments, Scott's Napoleon doesn't sing and doesn't swing. It moves by starts and stops. Its central love affair, between Napoleon and Josephine with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, screams for our attention, but the relationship doesn't completely convince, although both are very good, and this is one of Phoenix's best roles. Certainly Ridley Scott's skeleton key to the forever-depicted Napoleon's life is a version of "cherchez la femme": the woman in his life explains it. This is, then, a sort of feminist interpretation. Contemporary audiences may latch onto this - though the idea of montaging Napoleon's love life with his battles and leaving out the political dimension may look cockeyed to straitlaced historians.

    For all the grandeur and production values, the scenes just don't quite click. I longed for moments like the compulsively watchable long opening banquet scene in Roberto Rossellini's 1966 film for French television, La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ("The Taking of Power by Louis XIV"). There is a film that was probably made on a shoestring, that may be of dubious accuracy, but that feels stunningly real and specific as to so many details we could not have imagined. I wanted to be there when Scott was shooting Napoleon and say imperiously, "Surprise me!" because that's what Rossellini does - though when filmmakers try to do that with historical epics they too generally wind up doing something dumb or too attention-grabbing.

    Rossellini had the advantage of a relatively narrow time-scheme, while Scott takes on Napoleon's entire career. But why did he have to do that, and siphon it into a two-and-a-half-hour feature film? A biopic by any other name is still a biopic. Part of why this film doesn't quite work is that there was clearly a great deal of "Director's Cut" material and the editing down to this length was a strain, causing pacing issues many have noted.

    Scott is doing all these battles, each one better than the last, but he's not much interested in Napoleon as a leader or canny politician. In fact - this is the greatest weakness - he and his writer Robert Scarpa don't make it very clear how the man rose to fame and power. The publicity says he "came from nothing and achieved everything," neither of which is true; and his coming from the minor nobility - and so not "nothing" - is left out. Nor do they spell out the forces that led to his being exiled when he failed in battle. We do get a full picture of his effort to have a son and how it was decided that he must divorce Josephine to do so - and all the letters, and the jealousy over her taking a lover while he was off winning wars and their lifelong friendship. The love story is there, but undermined by all the rants and the crude sex scenes.

    And here we should mention, because Vanessa Kirby has a pronounced English accent and Phoenix is American, that this is another big new anglophone film like Michael Mann's current Ferrari, that's retro because everybody's speaking the wrong language, which is likely to rub sophisticated audiences the wrong way. Certainly some French critics have registered their protest. Le Monde, no less, says Scott shows us "two camps that speak the same language (English), which is disturbing." Maybe Napoleon will be made available dubbed in French on platforms. But dubbing is its own kind of distortion.

    There's a major visual complaint too. This is an epic and there are all those magnificent spectacles, the muskets and horses, the pouring rain, the tents, the snow, the complex deployment of troops, many - potentially - terrific scenes. But they are curiously under-lit. This is a common feature of today's post-digital filmmaking. Is this "natural light"? But wait: it's a movie! We're sitting in the dark watching it. We need some light on the screen. We get that a lot of the time when the French were doing battle against the Austrians, the Russians, or the English the weather was gloomy. (Mark Asch in Film Comment cannily observes that Scott uses this "as an excuse to darken and degrade images to "mask CGI.") But it often seems rather a lot of money has been wasted making a scene we can barely see. (This is not to be confused with the richly moody, polluted bad weather of Blade Runner, though it may be as close as Scott gets here to the Rossellini authenticity effect.)

    Napoleon winds up leaving one feeling disappointed and rather depressed. It's always sad to walk out of a movie that should have been better. Scott's film also presents the arc of Napoleon's life as a mournful one. He wins battles; he becomes emperor; but he can't produce an heir with the woman he loves, the thing he wants most, what all the battles were for. For all his accomplishments, after all the glory, Napoleon winds up in disgrace and in exile, on a remote island. The loneliness and defeat are not downplayed here.

    History buffs will have much more to say, and we will learn if they are delighted or infuriated. On "History Extra" online, an article, "Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: how accurate is the movie? The real history explained" shows that while the film follows legend at times, it is quite accurate at some of the moments that may seem most far-fetched. It was an incredible life.

    Though it's not a success, I do not regret my two and a half hours at the cineplex with Ridley Scott's Napoleon. We must have a lot of time for a director who has made classics of the range of Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma and Louise - and quite a few other interesting films besides, many of a grand and challenging nature. This time again he tried. If he didn't quite make it, the battle was nonetheless bravely fought.

    Among many actors, Tahar Rahim (Jacques Audiard's discovery in the brilliant A Prophet) is featured as revolutionary figure Paul Barras, and Rupert Everett plays a very haughty Duke of Wellington.

    Napoleon, 158 mins., premiered in Paris Nov. 14, 2023. AlloCiné press rating 2.9 (58%) (Scott responded "The French don't even like themselves"). US theatrical release Nov. 22, 2023. Metacritic rating: 63%.


    JOAQUIN PHOENIX IN NAPOLEON
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-27-2023 at 10:40 AM.

  2. #2
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    That's too bad that it feels depressing. I'm seeing it this next week with a friend.
    Very excited to see what Ridley Scott created.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Thanks, Johann. Ridley Scott's NAPOLEON left me feeling depressed at the end but I wasn't depressed while watching it, nor should you be.

    This review of the movie by Mark Asch - more of a Napoleon-movie specialist, obviously - sent me today in FILM COMMENT (only to email subscribers and not online) is rich in oddball observed details that may interest you and other readers and that seem partly to redeem the movie for him ( as "weak historiography, but a perversely entertaining portrait of pathology"). However I strongly object to his calling OPPENHEIMER a "middlebrow crowd-pleaser":

    Tiny King
    By Mark Asch

    More than a republican or a royalist, Napoleon Bonaparte was—forgive me—a disruptor. “World history on horseback” is how Hegel described the general-turned–self-crowned emperor, and accordingly, his story has long triggered film directors’ aspirations to technological innovation and heroic vision—from the unprecedented technique of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), perhaps the most euphoric expression of silent cinema’s world-remaking potential, to Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet-era Waterloo (1970), with its mass mobilization of real-life soldiers as extras, to Stanley Kubrick’s notoriously unrealized epic biopic.

    Ridley Scott was once also a filmmaker whose name signified the advance of history. An art school–trained prodigy who was one of the advertising industry’s original “creatives,” he carried the new-media sizzle of his commercial work into the sci-fi landmarks Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). These days he cuts a more retrograde figure as a prolific craftsman, equal parts stodgy and stalwart, as likely to inspire shrugs (e.g., 2021’s House of Gucci) as rueful proclamations that We Used to Make Things in This Country (e.g., 2021’s The Last Duel). Arriving on the heels of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s middlebrow crowd-pleaser that some saw as deliverance for moviegoers jaded by corporate IP, Napoleon, too, suggests revanchist ambitions. Just as Napoleon himself led France out of post-Revolutionary chaos by setting its politics back to Roman times, Sir Ridley, both agent of change and rear guard, rides in to clean out the Thanksgiving box office with another Great Man of History biopic. Napoleon, however, is weirder than it initially appears—though it’s hard to tell if that’s Scott’s doing or that of his star. As Bonaparte, Joaquin Phoenix (once the shifty antagonist to a red-blooded Russell Crowe in Scott’s 2000 epic Gladiator), squirms and grimaces as if he’s allergic to the fabric of his costume, projecting a tactile discomfort with the weight of history and the expectations of genre.

    In some ways, Scott returns to where it all began. In his first feature, The Duellists (1977), set during the Napoleonic Wars, Harvey Keitel played a Brooklyn-accented Hussar whose inexplicable grudge against a fellow officer, played by the much taller and easygoing Keith Carradine, stood in for the upstart provocations of Bonaparte himself. This thumbnail understanding of Napoleon as a thin-skinned bantamweight shit-stirrer has not meaningfully deepened in the nearly half a century since. To Scott, Napoleon’s rise from lowly artillery lieutenant to brigadier general in the First Republic, his military triumph and failure, and his exile, return, and banishment all amount to the odyssey of an insecure social climber. His Napoleon is Trumpian in his grandiose reliance on alternative facts and desperate performances for a captive audience—not to mention his resentment of the much taller Duke of Wellington, played by the posh and contemptuous Rupert Everett.

    Scott’s flagrant disregard for the historical record is evident right from the film’s first scene, in which he places Napoleon at the beheading of Marie Antoinette. His advertorial eye yields a rendering of the French Revolution that is at once experientially vivid and politically vague, in the way that A Tale of Two Cities was: we see the terror of a rageful mob; cast a sentimental gaze upon the brave, doomed queen as she’s led up the stairs to the guillotine; and witness the grimy details of the rotten veg chucked at her regal person. Even more than most decades-spanning completist historical dramas, Napoleon demands a high tolerance for scenes that play out like laughably compressed dramatizations of Wikipedia entries. (Scott recently explained a scene of Napoleon’s army firing cannons directly into the Pyramids as “it was a fast way of saying he took Egypt.”)

    As Scott hopscotches from battle set piece to battle set piece—many of Napoleon’s major engagements took place at night or in bad weather, allowing Scott to mask CGI with diegetic darkness and monochrome color-grading—David Scarpa’s script reduces the arc of European history to Napoleon’s personal whims, and those whims are entirely motivated by his possessive passion for Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). Like the myth of his diminutive stature—at five foot six and a half, he was only an inch and a half shorter than Joaquin Phoenix—well-worn stories of Joséphine’s affairs paint Napoleon as a little engine powered by grievance; such hoary clichés are also a convenient shortcut for filmmakers eager to consolidate, say, the imperial power struggles of 19th-century Europe into matters of individual will. Scott gets us to Egypt via a match cut from a close-up of Kirby’s impassive face to a long shot of the Great Sphinx of Giza, and has Napoleon abandoning the campaign after word reaches him of his cuckolding. The one-to-one association of empress and empire is made blindingly explicit when newspaper coverage (which recurs in the film as an expository device) of Joséphine’s affairs inspires Napoleon’s return from Elba.

    Scott expends seemingly zero effort in shaping a unified performance style, an indifference that is especially noteworthy in the dialect free-for-all of his historical films. They can be hijacked easily by a rogue performer, such as Ben Affleck in The Last Duel or Jared Leto in House of Gucci. In Napoleon, it is hard to tell where Scarpa’s psychosexual simplifications end and Phoenix’s inventions begin, but the actor is eccentric far beyond the bounds of the role (with the imperious Kirby an ideal foil). With Joséphine, Napoleon is cravenly horny, humming like a little kid and pawing at the ground like a bull. But when the emperor drops his bicorn hat, he playfully places it on Joséphine’s head—shades of Brando unconsciously putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront (1954), but signifying, instead of a buried feminine vulnerability, a desire to be dominated.

    Phoenix, speaking in his natural accent and offbeat rhythms, is notably contemporary in his affect. His Napoleon is prone to tantrums, poor posture, goofy double takes, and self-soothing mumblings. Even the way he rings Joséphine’s doorbell, then turns to face the street and fiddle faux-casually with his sword, feels modern. He is pained and bored while giving battlefield orders, and in formal situations he seems like a schoolboy reciting catechism by rote, getting the inflections wrong because he doesn’t understand the meaning of the words. Seizing on the script’s frequently anachronistic or otherwise campy dialogue (“Destiny has brought me this lamb chop”), Phoenix gives a deliriously funny performance of arrested development to rival his turn earlier this year in Beau Is Afraid. It’s weak historiography, but a perversely entertaining portrait of pathology.

    Mark Asch is the author of Close-Ups: New York Movies (2019) and a contributor to Reverse Shot, Sight and Sound, the Criterion Collection, and other publications.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-23-2023 at 11:57 AM.

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    "many of Napoleon’s major engagements took place at night or in bad weather, allowing Scott to mask CGI with diegetic darkness and monochrome color-grading..."


    That's an observation I may add to my review since I object to the "diegetic darkness and monochrome color-grading" are one of my pet peeves.

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    I guess movie directors very often are rather crazy, especially ones that make epics like NAPOLEON. Actors that play in them like Joaquin Phoenex too. The lamb chop line Asch mentions really does stick out as particularly insane and out-of-nowhere.

    And all along, the truly talented brother was always River Phoenix, taken away so early, alas.

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    Joaquin has carved out quite a career. Part of me wonders how accurate he will be (seeing the film tomorrow).
    I've seen the trailers ad infinitum, and I know I'll dig it.
    Napoleon certainly came from somewhere, and he conquered a lot but not everything.
    He's a historic badass, one who fought over 60 battles and lost only 8.
    He could only be defeated when weakened, which was rarely. Says a lot if you can only be taken down when you make a mistake.
    Looking very forward to the war scenes.
    Phoenix looks the part, and I hear the acting is excellent from all involved.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    And look forward to hearing your reactions.

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