Napoleon Is an Explosively Funny War Epic
Ridley Scott depicts a despot’s ambition while taking surprising creative detours.
In his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon — about the coup d’état staged by Napoleon’s nephew — Karl Marx famously opined that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What Ridley Scott’s historical biopic presupposes is: What if it was farcical the first time around?
The trailers for Napoleon sell a straight-faced Shakespearean tragedy about a mad king who steals the throne of France, and while the film retains the tone and scale of Scott’s other period war epics (Kingdom of Heaven, in particular), it turns out to be the year’s funniest stealth comedy, at least in its first half. Clocking in at 2 hours and 37 minutes, it collapses several decades of French sea change into its runtime, from its socio-politics to major military battles, all while focusing on history’s sweatiest tactician and most indignant cuckold.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon Bonaparte by way of The Office’s Michael Scott, unwritten from the history books penned by sore winners and retold in speculative fashion, as though the movie were chronicling an ambitious myth-maker. Like French history’s Forrest Gump, he’s in all the places he shouldn’t be — including the execution of Marie Antoinette — bearing witness to the first chapter of a story he hopes to write as he climbs in military rank.
The initial war scenes are brutal and beautiful. They’re filled with blood and flying limbs, and awash in flame and darkness — hellish naval images reminiscent of William Lionel Wyllie’s painting “The Battle of the Nile.” All the while, Napoleon stutters and hesitates, but ultimately presses on. However, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa aren’t interested in this dynamic as an act of bravery; Napoleon’s genius military tactics are but one extension of his ambition. His other facets are unexpectedly clownish. He’s a small man, not in size, but in moral fiber. He demands adulation and projects his flaws onto those around him, while making grandiose statements that land in knee-slapping fashion. (“Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!” Who would’ve thought Napoleon would yield some of the funniest lines this year?)
Napoleon’s romance with the widow Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) is gentle and boorish in equal measure. Their actual sexual chemistry is practically null — get ready for some of the worst on-screen sex you’ve ever seen — but their emotional codependency leads to explosive intimacy, with jaw-dropping demands and proclamations in the vein of Phantom Thread. The film is hardly as nuanced in its depiction of need, but its brush strokes are detailed enough to paint an outward portrait of a mama’s boy in arrested development, who was probably told he deserves the world one too many times.
As the years go by, Napoleon’s backstage political tête-à-têtes see him granted the role of emperor, in what appears to be a take on modern fascism (à la Donald Trump and other contemporary strongmen, whose idiocy is front and center). To the 85-year-old Scott, who no longer has time for anyone’s bullshit, these are men whose ambition is worthy of ridicule and scorn. However, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski don’t present the film’s comedic moments and exchanges with the typical visual language of comedy. Where a political farce like Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin finds laughs in theatrical staging and a bright palette that allows its audience to let its guard down, Napoleon remains engaged with the intense visual drama of every scene. Its high-contrast lighting conceals motives in shadow, and each supporting performance is delivered with passion and Shakespearean flourish. Its comedic stylings are jarring, its pratfalls are shot like action beats, and Phoenix’s timing is sudden and obtrusive, appearing hand-in-hand with political intrigue. The film may be riotously funny, but its visual context always betrays a matter-of-fact seriousness, so that each pivot back toward violence and shocking bloodshed is always within reach.
By the movie’s midpoint, Napoleon’s personal and military ambitions curdle each interaction far beyond the point of parody. It’s nauseating to watch what becomes of the people he claims to love (if only as a means to ensure their loyalty), like his legion of soldiers, or his Empress Joséphine. Kirby navigates each scene with strategic emotional dexterity, clawing her way through an inescapable emotional maze whose contours she knows better than most, but which proves no less menacing. Her work makes for the perfect B-side to Jodie Comer’s performance in The Last Duel, another recent Scott historical epic that pulls the rug out from under its lying and bumbling male characters as it reveals the suppressed and silent truths women are forced to bear.
Phoenix, however, is the movie’s not-so-secret weapon, turning in a performance halfway between Gladiator’s chillingly zealous Commodus and Inherent Vice’s half-witted “Doc” Sportello, two opposing modes he commits to wholeheartedly. It’s perfectly timed and remarkably balanced, as the actor juggles a deep-seated lust for power with a barely-concealed self-loathing while melding them both into something infinitely watchable.
As the film gets caught up in the epic sweep of battle — detailed, lengthy scenes capture the bloody, grimy chaos of war — it’s hard not to get swept up in Napoleon’s prowess as a general, if nothing else. Scott never presents any other aspect of the man as remotely. Each political decision the character makes leads to big-screen spectacle at its finest. It’s why we go to the movies, and Napoleon delivers us these large-scale thrills with thousands of extras.
This allure is also the very reason the film stops short of greatness. Its back half explodes with dazzling imagery that is, unfortunately, short-lived. It feels too truncated for something so pointed about the foibles of a renowned historical figure. Where initial scenes breathe with humorous purpose, allowing Phoenix to act a fool and blend regal aspiration with the gaudy swagger of someone lacking in self-awareness, his downfall is neither as tragic nor as deliciously enjoyable as it ought to be. Perhaps it’s greedy to want more candy after such a belt-busting feast, but Scott is nothing if not a cinematic confectioner.
In true Scott fashion, there are already plans to release a four-hour director’s cut on Apple TV+, which will likely flesh out this latter half, making it even stronger. But until then, the theatrical cut of Napoleon is a completely worthwhile war epic nestled within a surprising historical comedy, all tied together by a performance from Phoenix that rides a razor-thin line between gonzo and operatic.