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Napoleon Review: British Filmmaker Makes Laughing Stock of French Emperor

When Bonaparte meets Joséphine, her hair is shorn, her prospects limited, and her reputation in tatters. In fact, she may have only survived facing the guillotine, a fate endured by her late aristocratic husband, because the architect of the Revolution’s bloodlust, Robespierre, had himself just recently been sent for a shave to his favorite razor. Nonetheless, she is dubious about this strange possessive man who stares at her but cannot make love, even when they’re glimpsed mechanically performing the act in a frosty bedroom. She grows to appreciate his oddness, though, and his power as he rises up the ranks. But as time passes he contemplate displacing her because after a decade of marriage, she still has not given him a son.

Cards on the table, I strongly suspect French viewers will not take to this Napoleon. It may have always been doomed due to the glaring choice of not casting one French actor, and worse having an American play the nation’s greatest general. (Normally such issues do not bother this reviewer, but it is unusually noticeable when a bunch of British actors express their revulsion toward Wellington and the Royal Navy). Yet the bigger issue is likely to be the surprise that Scott’s portrait is one done entirely as a scathing satire. 

While I am no expert in French history, there is the unmistakable sense that this Napoleon is an Englishman’s smirking estimation of “the little general” (as the Brits were wont to say in the 19th century) with the big head. In addition to dryly alluding to his lack of stature, the film revels in his oversensitive neuroses and red-faced petulance.

When Joséphine calls him fat before his guests, he boasts “I enjoy my meals!” and that destiny has brought “this lamb chop to me!” He subsequently winds up throwing food at his wife as the conversation further deteriorates. When she publicly cuckolds him, Phoenix leans into the comedic touches he used to flavor his pitiful collection of sad sack losers, from Joker to Her. His face is a sea fidgeting ticks that betray a desire to sob. Even his grand coup where he wrestles flickering democracy from the jaws of France has an element of farce as he initially flees for his life from the French Directory (the post-Revolution’s legislature). He’s filmed in a comically wide shot sprinting from the angry politicians, huffing and puffing as he cries for his army. “They’re trying to kill me!” he mewls. 

The film concedes the man’s tactical brilliance and ruthless cunning on the battlefield, but in all other arenas you’re never once given a clue why anyone would follow this emotional wretch into battle.

As a bit of unlikely epic cinematic comedy, it’s highly entertaining, and pairs well with a more layered performance by Kirby. Joséphine is presented as a very practical woman living in an impractical time, as France throws out one set of egomaniacal rulers just to hand the reins of power to another nutter. While the screenplay underlines her initial disinterest in the popular man, the actress’ performance slowly lets down a mask of steadily growing attraction, albeit I’d hesitate to suggest it is toward Napoleon. Instead this seems to be a film about two people who come to adore power, his over France and then continental Europe, and hers over this otherwise powerful man who’s left besotted by her beauty.

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