Joaquin Phoenix’s Tired Napoleon Stretches the Idea of Common Knowledge into Fiction

There’s a comic by the artist Bestie which I saw as a kid, and it’s stuck with me ever since I first read it in Sunday morning cartoons. On the left is Napoleon laying on a bed, legs spread while Joséphine ties his ankles to the bedposts. A speech bubble hovers with the words ‘Not too tight Joséphine!’ On the right are two servants, one with a glass listening against the door, the other holding a candle. They both wear cheeky smiles. The servant with the glass is saying ‘He said, “Not tonight, Joséphine.”’ Reading a random coitus comic in the middle of Cathy and Calvin and Hobbes was certainly a unique way of learning about a French military leader’s sex life. Its meaning flew over my head, leading to a slightly awkward conversation with my grandmother about what it meant. Ack! indeed.

It’s been decades since I first read that comic, yet it’s never left my mind. The thought now rattles around amidst the disorganised filing cabinets of history I attempt to maintain in my head as an attempt to understand the world we live in, with its presence occasionally informing the enduring question of how history is treated as a fluid entity. Our version of Napoleon in 2023 is a polarised version of who he was at the turn of the 18th century. The well of ‘common knowledge’ is topped up thanks to historians and storytellers who rely on other historians and storytellers to help conjure the legend of Napoleon out of the past.  

As director Ridley Scott said to The Times in regards to the historical accuracy within his latest epic Napoleon, “There’s a lot of imagination [in history books]. When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.’”

That thought is questioned at the close of Napoleon. The exiled French leader sits far removed from home on an island off the African coast staring off to sea. Two young girls are talking with him, probing about his past. One asks him about who burnt down Moscow when he waged an assault on Russia. He responds that it was he who burnt down Moscow. The child reputes his claim saying that it was in fact Russia who burnt their city to the ground, not the French. Napoleon scoffs, ‘Who said that?’ To which the child says, ‘It’s common knowledge.’

Much of what we know about Napoleon has become ‘common knowledge’: he’s short; he was married to Joséphine de Beauharnais, whom he never had a child with, leading to suggestions he lacked sexual energy; as a French general he won most of his battles; and of course, it was Russia who burnt down Moscow. Somewhere in those attributed ‘facts’ sits a version of the truth.

Filmmakers toy around with fictional fidelity when adapting history for the screen, all the while utilising the imagination poured into history books as a template, leading to the creation of an experience that distorts the past, bending and morphing it into its own version of the truth. Multiple historical figures are often blended into one fictional character for the ease of narrative, while timelines become amorphous to allow decade spanning events to happen in the breadth of a year, all in the name of ‘cinematic entertainment’.

Scott’s filmography is peppered with versions of the past, from the jingoistic Black Hawk Down to the crime saga of American Gangster and the Biblical-adjacent epics Exodus: Gods and Kings and Kingdom of Heaven, all the while taking an occasional dalliance into extravagant Italian lifestyles with All the Money in the World and The House of Gucci.

Was Ridley Scott there for any of these stories? No. Yet, as someone who has mostly enjoyed Ridley Scott’s career as a dad-film director, I’m quite glad he refuses to shut the fuck up about them.

A closing card tells us that Napoleon fought in 61 campaigns, with three of these battles presented as showpieces during the film: the Siege of Toulon in 1793, the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, with there are occasional glimpses of the Reign of Terror, the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798, and the Battle of Borodino in 1812.

Napoleon hit his KPI marks at his battles with a success rate of 80%, leaving some 3 million souls dead under his command. There is clearly something about the Napoleonic era that pulls Scott in, as he commenced his feature film career with The Duellists, a compelling tale of two opposing soldiers who find themselves at odds against one another throughout the campaigns that Napoleon engaged in.  

Ridley Scott is an entertainer first, a visual realiser second, then somewhere down the line he dabbles in cinematic history telling. His interest is in the spectacle, eschewing the cerebral and the examination of the human mind for the in-the-moment excitement of seeing a masterfully-choregraphed battle sequence that thrusts the viewer right into the fray.

Whether it’s a chest bursting open (Alien), live brains for dinner (Hannibal), or a gladiator churned up by a rampaging chariot (Gladiator), Ridley Scott presents violence as a visceral and horrifying experience that is inflicted upon the recipient. Napoleon is no different, with Napoleon’s horse being an early victim, receiving a gnarly and unsettling cannonball to the chest. Not since Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot has the grotesque impact of a cannonball been so horrifyingly realised on screen. Later during the French Revolution, a protestor backs away from her detached leg, another cannonball victim.

Then there’s the casting, which is rarely regionally adjacent to the real life figures the story is based on. In the case of Napoleon, the French general is presented sans-accent, with his origins suggesting he’s a chap (Joaquin Phoenix) from Somewhere, America, while Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) hails from the streets of Wimbledon, England. This isn’t unexpected, given Napoleon is a major Hollywood production, although this non-Francophilic vibe for a distinctly French tale adds to the anti-Napoleon sentiment of the film, yet it’s a decision that’s made all the more bizarre when about three quarters of the way through the film there are a handful of lines of dialogue not in English. The reason behind this creative choice is never made apparent. It just is.

Which leads us to the great conflict that sits at the heart of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Joaquin Phoenix.

Initially, Phoenix plays the Frenchie like he’s in Napoleon is Afraid, with the leader consistently talking about not wanting to fall into a state of ‘melancholy’ while trying to stave off panic attacks. As he grows more confident in his leadership, thanks in part to a gaggle of gents who badger and corral their way into determining the future of France, so does his tendency towards infantilism.

That feeling of ineptitude marries neatly with Napoleon’s notion that all the wealth, success, and glory is his destiny. While David Scarpa’s script is frequently dry and devoid of wit, there occasional example of brilliance is witnessed when Napoleon announces, food raised high in his hand like a sabre, that ‘Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!’ If there’s a petulant pop culture figure that most neatly aligns to this version of Napoleon, it’s in ‘King Curtis’ who once proudly proclaimed that ‘Bacon is good for me.’

As an aside: Australian viewers will be no doubt grateful that the dalliance in gluttony helps to usher in an accidental (although I do wish it was deliberate) nod to a certain succulent Chinese meal.

Napoleon’s first genuine encounter with Joséphine sees him stumble into a bustling party dressed in full uniform, as if the other regal attendees should be in awe of his military presence. He glares at her heaving bosom across the room in a doe-eyed manner. She calls him out on the ogling, to which he mumbles out some kind of compliment, and before you know it, the two are married and apparently in love.

Scott is unafraid of taking us into their bedroom, recognising that the way that a man has sex is as much a show of character as the way he conducts himself in public. Phoenix presents Napoleon as someone who fucks like a boy raised on Pornhub: it’s furious, frenetic, and devoid of any sense of romance. So, according to Phoenix and Scott it’s not that Napoleon lacked sexual energy, it’s just that he’s a shit sexual partner.

In one of the rare moments of comedy in the film, Phoenix sends up Napoleon as he stands in the doorway of Joséphine’s room as she’s circled by her lady-in-waiting and his mother. Her hair is set and she’s ready for bed, but Napoleon has other plans as he stomps his feet and starts to whinny like a horse in a hyper-aroused state. Joséphine relents, her disdain for this one-sided bout of physical affection later verbalised when she reputes Napoleon’s comment that the relationship has a wealth of love in it.

Vanessa Kirby frequently impresses as a weathered wife who lives with the weight of expectation to bear a child and bring forth the desired son to be Napoleon’s heir, a notion that’s regularly critiqued by the tabloids of the day. Yet, Phoenix frequently feels like he’s in a different film to Kirby as he occupies the scenes with her like he’s a stand-in waiting for the actual actor to appear. To say there is no chemistry between the two would suggest that such a practice is of interest to Ridley Scott as a director, and for this critic, it’s hard to say that he has any desire to explore the romantic bond they shared at all in this film.

Maybe it’s because Phoenix is frequently straight-faced that the suggested relationship is hard to feel. It’s a creative choice that sometimes feels like a comment on Napoleon: is there anything genuinely going on under the comical hat he wears? Is this a man deep in thought? We see him slip into slumber during important meetings or gaze off into the distance during a meaningful moment with Joséphine, but then we also never see the plans of attack being devised. They simply just happen.

When the battles unfurl is when we see Napoleon lurch into life and just why Ridley Scott is the revered director that he is. The Battle of Austerlitz is one for the ages as a tactical battle takes place in the snow with the attacking army pushed into a devastating situation on a frozen lake. The internal work that Phoenix thinks he’s presenting on screen of this great mastermind strategist finally gets a chance to play out, showing exactly why centuries after his death we still talk about Napoleon.

Less engaging is the climactic battle of Waterloo which fails to show the degradation and outclassing of Napoleon on the battlefield. He’s messy here, causing thousands of deaths in his army, but again, we get little insight as to how he’s managing this failure in the moment. The unshakeable vibe is that we’re witnessing an autotuned version of a Napoleon battle play out, leading Napoleon to end on a dull note.

Dialogue in the battle sequences is infrequent, leaning into the dad-movie vibe and allowing said father-figure enough time to turn to their film going partner and fill in the history we’re missing on screen. Scenes like this, where time becomes irrelevant, suggest that the 158-minute theatrical version of Napoleon is yet another compromised film by Ridley Scott. Did we not learn from the dull cinema outing of Kingdom of Heaven which was transformed into a great experience when the directors cut was released? The 220-minute cut of Napoleon will launch down the line on AppleTV+, and sight unseen, I can ensure that that film will prove to be a more enriching experience than what’s currently available in cinemas. At the very least, maybe we’ll finally see Scott’s obsession with the fact that Napoleon had piles play out.

The greatest frustration with this truncated version of Napoleon lies in how weightless an experience it is. While it’s steeped in death, it lacks a sense of tragedy, and while yearning is a key character trait of Napoleon, it lacks lust, desire, and passion. We’re told of Napoleon’s adherence to destiny and his search for a legacy, with mounting pressure on both Napoleon and Joséphine to produce an heir or his own desire to reshape the global footprint of France, yet at no time are we encouraged to consider the weight of the history of France and how having a singular leader like Napoleon is a horrifying concept to consider.

Frustratingly, the dichotomy that exists between the excess of the rich and the unceasing famine of the poor is barely explored. Scott isn’t a director interested in framing his narratives in the era they’re made in, yet with Napoleon, he’s also not particularly interested in exploring the era the story is set in. It just is.

This once again reminds me of the recontextualising of Napoleon’s history through that cheeky comic for no reason other than to highlight just how history can be misconstrued, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Napoleon clearly isn’t a historical figure who deserves lionisation or respect, but surely he deserves a grander critique of power over France? Nobody alive now knows what Napoleon was truly like, so all we have are imagined ideas of who he was as a person. While Phoenix is frequently flat here, there are moments where it’s clear that he wishes to ridicule Napoleon’s behaviour by amplifying his childish manner.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s dangerous when fictionalised history is treated as gospel (case in point: the William Wallace statue that looks oddly like Mel Gibson), however, an adherence to history is not what Scott is interested in. Did Napoleon really direct his army to shoot at the pyramids? No, but it sure looks neat. As such, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is an attempt at historical entertainment, muddled only by the sense that peppering the film with enough ‘common knowledge’ while also addressing some common myths (Napoleon was 1.68m tall, Joaquin Phoenix is 1.73m tall) will allow for some kind of reassertion of the ‘truth’. It just happens to be a desperately dull one.

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim

Writer: David Scarpa

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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