Napoleon And The Spasmodic Lamb Chop of Destiny
I just wanted a movie worth watching…But like Napoleon’s lust for conquest, glory, and Josephine, we can’t always get what we want.
Can we not find and ensconce ourselves in a happy medium of storytelling, just once in a while, to say we have done so and see how it feels?
Watching Ridley Scott’s Napoleon in the theater left the audience with the impression that their seats were the point of suspension for the great narrative pendulum to pass back and forth before their very eyes for the better part of three hours. Academics, philosophers, historians both amateur and professional, and all manner of cultural commentating rehashed “great man theory” debates in the run up to the film about a figure so dominating that his era is called “the Napoleonic era/wars” after the exploits of Bonaparte. With the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, his skills and body of work suggested perhaps a character study on the insecurities of the great man by an actor known for his intensity and darker roles when dealing with complex characters. So, the question was, which was the audience going to get: great man hagiography with giant battles, or brooding private insecurities of the mythologized legend?
Faced with this choice, Ridley Scott answered the question with “Oui, plus de cowbell!” giving us this pendulum-swing mess of a movie that goes all over the place before reaching its destination, failing to explain where we destined and how we all got there.
Personally, in the pantheon of screenwriting, I rank the dialogue where an irate Napoleon stabs his meat with a fork and whines/bellows “This lamb chop is my DESTINY!” at his non-compliant wife at the end of a table full of dinner guests ahead of “I hate sand” from Attack of the Clones and just behind “It’s time to show the Fire Nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs” from M. Night Shyamalan’s desecrations of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the vernacular usage of the English language.
Brief aside: For a much better review of the film itself, do read our friend Rufus Hickok’s take on Napoleon, as he is my superior in all things French (that’s Dr. Rufus, French history Ph.D. to you), cultural criticisms, and writing in the English language about all subjects French and otherwise.
I get what Scott was shooting for, I think, in juxtaposing l’empereur’s climb to power in post-Revolution France with his chaotic relationship with Josephine. The great man, master of Europe and the battlefield, but a man who couldn’t discipline himself in his own house or marriage. That’s a self-telling story, a narrative just waiting to be flushed out and explored.
The problem is, Scott makes the contrast without giving us anything to invest in, least of all Napoleon himself. Historically known to be both docile in private but highly charismatic in groups and ruthless in pressing his will, Phoenix’s Bonaparte comes off disinterested, disengaged, and something of a dope. Instead of flaws of personal character — which Napoleon had multitudes of — contrasting with achievement we are left with a repetitive blandness punctuated with the neck pains of whiplash when the tactical genius of Austerlitz meekly slinks into a mistress’s bed to purposefully breed a bastard child because his mommy told him to do so.
The cringe factor of Napoleon’s periodic 15-second sessions of chipmunk-on-cocaine-like coitus with his eye-rolling wife Josephine fail to endear either character to any sexually functional adult watching. The audience I was watching with snort-laughed the first time it happened, got quiet the second time it happened, and were perceivably squirming in their seats when it happened again. By the time the unhappy couple are throwing food — not the lamb chop that Napoleon declares as his destiny during the monologue leading up to but other, lesser side dishes — and divorcing, most one wonders why these characters care at all to be that upset about it.
The audience keeps waiting for any spark of anything from the immense abilities of Joaquin Phoenix in vain as Napoleon the tyrant with the blood of untold thousands on his hands becomes a bloodless, empty, mostly boring stuffed uniform in a period piece that can’t figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. When soldier’s break out into a “long live the emperor” at a key moment, the immediate reaction from a befuddled and tiring viewer is to ask “why?”
Scott can direct. The battle scenes and visuals are very good, if ahistorical including some truly egregious moments during Waterloo that even ABBA would know any soldier worth their salt would never do while facing their destiny. Slamming huge chunks of European history into one film was always going to mean great moments left out, and here Italy, all of Egypt except for shooting a cannon at a pyramid and looking at a mummy, and most of Napoleon’s battlefield exploits are skipped all together. Even the pivotal and ill-fated disaster of the Russian campaign comes off half-assed, as after Moscow burns the impression is Napoleon just went “oh, well” and walked his moody self back to Paris and misplaced 400k men along the way and Presto, l’emporer is deposed and off to Elba so we can get back to him pining for Josephine and France, probably in that order.
I wanted to like this film far more than I did, and found myself resenting the effort I was putting in to do so compared to the effort put forth by the filmmaker to, if not meet me halfway, at least take a step or two in that general direction. Knowing that Ridley Scott can make superior movies probably biases this take, but even his noble misses like Kingdom of Heaven benefited from his longer director cuts. Perhaps another hour’s worth of Napoleon would round off some blunt edges, but this visage of Bonaparte is so frightfully boring and dull I don’t think that can be narratively fixed with more cowbell, French or otherwise.
Napoleon set all of Europe on fire for 16 years, but the only spark of warmth from this film came from the AMC heated recliner my own posterior was observing this spectacle from. I guess the pendulum going back and forth was something to see, but I really just wanted a movie about Napoleon that involved a Napoleon worth watching for the better part of three hours.
But like Napoleon’s lust for conquest, glory, and Josephine, we can’t always get what we want. Just little, awkward 15-seconds of it amidst the long slog to exile.