Thursday, December 28, 2023

Napoleon - For and Against

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Even bad Ridley Scott movies are generally worth seeing. As he himself has remarked, "I have an eye." There are definitely ravishing moments in Napoleon, as well as any number of nods to famous pieces of Napoleonic iconography.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Most famously, of course, there's the above juxtaposition from the (alas, rather too short) Egyptian section of the movie, which echoes Jean-Léon Gérôme's classic late nineteenth century heroic painting:

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886)

Is it a bad film, though? The question is a complex one. Earlier this year I wrote a long blogpost about the (so-called) "Man of Destiny" on my bibliography blog.

Pieter Geyl: Napoleon: For and Against (1949)

I used there as my leit-motif there Dutch historian Pieter Geyl's classic analysis of Napoleonic historiography early and late. Written shortly after the Second World War, the inevitable comparison with a more recent charismatic dictator inevitably arose:
The case of the persecution of the Jews remains singular: for the rest we must be alive to the fact, when we compare them then and now, that although there is a difference in degree, there is none in principle.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Recently I've been indulging myself by reading through English novelist Fanny Burney's letters and diaries, which cover the whole period of the Napoleonic wars - as well as their aftermath, the "White Terror" of the restored Bourbon regime.

Fanny was an almost grovellingly loyal admirer of the English Royal Family, whom she served as assistant Mistress of the Robes in the mid-1790s (interestingly, the period of George III's first madness). Subsequently she lived from almost ten years in France with her husband, Royalist general Alexandre d'Arblay, between 1802 and 1812.

Her testimony, then, while undoubtedly partisan, cannot be faulted for its quality of personal witness. Her defence of the systematic programme of executions which began immediately after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, does, however, seem a little tone-deaf, to say the least:
Once restored to its rightful monarch, all foreign interference was at an end. Having been seated on the throne by the nation, and having never abdicated, though he had been chased by rebellion from his kingdom, [Louis XVIII] had never forfeited his privilege to judge which of his subjects were still included in his original amnesty, and which had incurred the penalty or chances of being tried by the laws of the land - and by them, not by royal decree, condemned or acquitted.
As Fanny's Victorian editor reminds us, this rather chilling passage was written à propos of a daring attempt by three Englishmen to smuggle a French diplomat, condemned to death by the Bourbons, out of jail:
His wife implored the king's mercy in vain, Lavalette was confined in the Conciergerie, and December 21, 1815, was the day fixed for his execution. The evening before that day his wife visited him in the prison. He exchanged clothes with her, and thus disguised, succeeded in making his escape. His safety was secured by three English gentlemen, one of whom, Sir Robert Wilson, conveyed Lavalette, in the disguise of an English officer, across the Belgian frontier. For this generous act the three Englishmen were tried in Paris, and sentenced, each, to three months' imprisonment.
It's as well to bear this in mind when condemning the undoubted brutality and cruelty of Napoleon's wars. It's not as if the realms and rulers he displaced were models of compassion and probity. The imposition of the Code Napoléon on so many conquered regions was literally the first glimpse many of their inhabitants had ever had of legal process and the rights of man.

No wonder Fanny Burney and her like were so anxious to restore a system which guaranteed the subordination of the many to the luxurious lifestyles of the few.

However, while there may be a good deal to say in defence of Napoleon himself, what about Ridley Scott's movie? I was reading Michael Sullivan's enticingly titled article "The 21 movies we hated in 2023" this morning: Napoleon clocks in at no. 15, with an explanatory quote from film critic Ann Hornaday:
The biggest flaw in Napoleon, it turns out, is the actor who plays him. It's difficult to understand why [Ridley] Scott would cast Joaquin Phoenix - one of the most subtle, recessive, almost fey actors working today - to play someone with such a commanding temperament.
There's something in that, I'm afraid. Phoenix was brilliant as the Joker, and as the evil emperor Commodus in Gladiator, but he lacks the epic intensity of a Russell Crowe or a Harrison Ford. He behaves more like a sleepwalker than a man of destiny: so childishly pleased by the adulation of the midshipmen on the British ship he ends up on at the end of the bio-pic that any remaining doubts he might be feeling over Waterloo seem quite submerged.

I would be interested to see the four-hour 'director's cut' we've been promised at some point in the future, but it's doubtful whether this central piece of miscasting can really be overcome no matter how conscientiously the rest of the action - and characterisation - is filled in.

All in all, Scott's film leaves one wishing that Stanley Kubrick had lived to complete his own big screen epic about the Emperor. The one thing I'm genuinely thankful for is that they didn't cast Adam Driver. He seems to star in every other film nowadays, and it's a relief that he must have been otherwise occupied at the time chasing dinosaurs in the singularly charmless 65 ...

Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, dir.: 65 (2023)