Epic ricochets between the battlefield and the bedroom

While the dynamic between a stoic Joaquin Phoenix and the fiery Vanessa Kirby intrigues, the French emperor’s strange relationship with Josephine distracts from the director’s specialty: epic war pictures.

A chyron that appears at the end of “Napoleon,” after two and a half hours of turgid, grime-filled spectacle, reports that the self-proclaimed Emperor of France oversaw 61 battles, listing the six that director Ridley Scott chose to stage for our benefit. . …Or for his own glory. The director’s motives are unclear, much like those of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who gives a mumbled and strangely anti-charismatic performance as the figure (short, slender and something of an outsider, due to his Corsican birth). who came to govern France after the revolution.

Here, from the master of the modern epic, comes an undeniably impressive technical achievement: a bombastic old-school “great men” movie of the kind that dominated Hollywood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the times are not the same, and although Scott knows which way the wind blows (he demonstrated this in his medieval reckoning film “The Last Duel”), he is not so sure how best to position such a biopic for one moment. Fed up with power-hungry patriarchs. It’s the opposite of recent films like “Chevalier” and “Jeanne du Barry,” which mine the footnotes of history to find overlooked heroes. Those stories broaden the audience’s horizons, while “Napoleon” reproduces what we already know.

Both Scott and Phoenix take on a camp touch, portraying the enigma that Napoleon was a petulant brat and military genius: someone who knew how to get his way on the battlefield, but resorted to food fights at home. As written by David Scarpa, “Napoleon” diverts much of the main character’s attention to the man’s wife, Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby).

Theirs is a great passion, to the point that Napoleon abandons his mission in Egypt to sail back home and confront Josephine when he learns of the relationships she has maintained during his absence. But every time she appears on screen, she distracts from the film’s main draw: a sprawling cast of hundreds of combat scenes that demonstrate both Napoleon’s keen military strategy and Scott’s gift for staging such engagements.

From the modern Mogadishu shootout in “Black Hawk Down” to the 12th century siege of Jerusalem in “Kingdom of Heaven,” Scott has extensive experience immersing audiences in intense, immersive warfare. Here, he takes a step back, adopting the widescreen format and filming as Abel Gance did (in the three-screen finale of his 1927 silent film “Napoleon”) and Sergei Bondarchuk (for his Soviet-era epic “War and peace”): letting an entire battlefield fill the frame, inspected from above by Napoleon himself, who stands stoically, sometimes communicating his orders with just a nod of his head.

Scott follows Napoleon’s career from his days as a promising young officer who witnessed the guillotining of Marie Antoinette (one of Scarpa’s many poetic licenses) to his exile on the island of Saint Helena. Although Josephine died seven years before him, she has the final say in this narrative, although no one would confuse this with her film. Dense without feeling rushed, then finished without ever really coming to life, “Napoleon” seems determined to cover a lot of ground within its not-inconsiderable running time.

The film begins with a brilliant military victory in Toulon, where the 24-year-old major captures the city’s artillery and directs it against the Spanish and British ships occupying the port. In one shot, Napoleon is charging the city walls when a cannonball hits the chest of his horse, causing the animal and its rider to fall backwards. Pinned under the beast, the bloodied young officer rises and continues the siege. It’s not often that a filmmaker offers a picture of war that audiences haven’t seen before, and this first example sets a high bar.

Every time the director and his protagonist meet on the battlefield, “Napoleon” reminds us what a pantheon-level talent Scott is. He orchestrates astonishingly complex scenes so that we can intuit the overall strategy, even as he scars us with gruesome details, like a drummer vaporized by a cannon blast or a massive army sunk to the bottom of a frozen lake at the Battle of Austerlitz. . Still, the film could well send audiences back to their history books for an explanation for something as fundamental as why the French dictator is warming up.

Phoenix is ​​largely responsible for this confusion, as he adapts the iconic character into his own brand: that of the insecure, antisocial man child, who is an unorthodox version of Napoleon, to say the least. Apart from his hat, his silhouette is not that of Napoleon. The actor’s soft tone spares him the indignity of acting with a foreign accent (Scott won’t fall into that trap again after “The House of Gucci”), and yet Napoleon did he speaks differently from his peers at the French court, hailing from the island of Corsica, a key detail that is almost lost in this narrative. The film requires Phoenix to play the character for more than three decades, but he only looks at the role towards the end. At first, he appears grayer than commanding officer Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim); Later, the passage of time simply makes him look stockier and unshaven.

While Scott includes moments that reframe the popular image of Napoleon, such as when he is shown looking terrified, descending stairs, and falling into the arms of his troops during the coup d’état that elevated him to First Consul of France, his approach does not feel revisionist as well as incomplete. This is surprising, since the script covers much more than audiences had asked for as it stands, to the point that “Napoleon” ultimately suffers from the same problem as its subject: the film’s ambitions are greater than the film’s ambitions. people demand, as Scott says. more than you can handle.

If the goal was to reevaluate Napoleon’s career in the context of whatever power Josephine had over him, then surely the film could do with fewer battle scenes and a sharper depiction of the dynamic of who controls who between them. In the end, “Napoleon” seems less enamored of his subject than any previous account of his exploits, referencing the 3 million lives lost during his campaigns. Scott may be skeptical of the man, but he can’t resist the desire to recreate some of history’s most notorious conflicts, so psychology is sacrificed for the sake of spectacle.

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