From Louis Lumière’s short film, Interview of Napoleon and the Pope, made in 1897, to Ridley Scott’s epic fresco Napoleon, some 180 films have been devoted to the man who was in turn nicknamed the little corporal, the great general, the black angel of Corsica, the tyrant, the despot, the butcher.
Until now, none of these films has surpassed Abel Gance’s Napoléon, an innovative and daring masterpiece released in 1927, a restored seven-hour version of which is expected to see the light of day in 2024. Not even the one that was announced as the cinematic event of 2023, which recounts the feats of arms and the tormented loves of the first French emperor, from the execution of the last queen of France until her death on the volcanic island of Sainte -Hélène, after being defeated by the English at Waterloo.
In fact, despite his undeniable aesthetic, artistic and technical qualities, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, experienced in large-scale films such as Gladiator, The Kingdom of Heaven and The Last Duel, appears like a tedious history lesson where the great characters act three little turns and then they leave, like Barras (Tahar Rahim) and Wellington (Rupert Everett). Worse still, a history lesson to which we would have liked to add a touch of humor and during which we would have omitted several pages, even entire chapters, in order to concentrate on the two passions, not to say obsessions, of Napoleon : the war and Josephine.
Whose fault is it ? To the screenwriter David Scarpa (All the Money in the World) or to Joaquin Phoenix, who would have had the script changed? One thing is certain, neither of them has as much wit as Sacha Guitry, whose theatrical Napoléon (1955) was told from Talleyrand’s point of view – played at Scott’s by Paul Rhys.
Perhaps we will have to see the four and a half hour version, which will be offered on Apple TV next year, to better appreciate the approach of Ridley Scott (who so magnificently visited the Napoleonic era in his first feature film, The Duellists, in 1977). And before declaring that the filmmaker should have refrained, like Stanley Kubrick at the end of the 1960s, from sticking to this Corsican of modest origins thirsty for territorial and feminine conquests.
However, it would be highly inadvisable not to see Napoleon on the big screen first. If only for the battle scenes, including that of Austerlitz, which turns out to be a true anthology moment with its underwater shots. In the tradition of War and Peace (1956), King Vidor, Waterloo (1970), Sergueï Bondarchuk, where we found 20,000 extras, and Colonel Chabert, Yves Angelo, where we recreated the Battle of Eylau, Scott’s sumptuous historical fresco does not just highlight the strategic genius of the emperor. Breathtaking, epic, incomparable, the battle scenes powerfully reveal all the horror of the Napoleonic wars. And the blind ambition of the stubborn general.
Played by Joaquin Phoenix, who mumbles like Marlon Brando in Désirée (1954), by Henry Koster, and histrionics like Rod Steiger in Waterloo, Napoleon appears as the thick, libidinous and whining brute at the center of all this opulence. Worse still, alongside Vanessa Kirby, a 35-year-old English rose gracefully playing the unfaithful and intriguing Joséphine de Beauharnais, the 49-year-old actor struggles to make people believe that he is 6 years her junior.
While the uprisings of the people and the military campaigns are gripping and impressive, the intimate scenes of the imperial couple prove to be embarrassing and boring interludes. On this account, it is better to rewatch the ambitious miniseries Napoléon (2002), by Yves Simoneau, with Christian Clavier and Isabelle Rossellini.