Odd and Bodacious Are the Words That Best Describe ‘Napoleon'
Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix have on their hands some kind of...something?
Napoleon is now playing in theaters and will stream on Apple TV+ later.
If I had to peg any director with the last name of Scott to make an eccentric and weirdo historical biopic, it would be Tony. The one who made Domino and Deja Vu, I mean. For those two flicks, Tony Scott went with an acid-like style, going psychedelic and getting high at a top-grade speed. Granted, his subject matters involved bounty hunters and time travel, so perhaps his fast-paced and high-octane storytelling mechanics were better understood for that material. The other Scott, Tony’s brother Ridley, is known to take on more large-scale epics with big and boisterous details but also grounded in some traditional filmmaking methodology. In Ridley’s latest, Napoleon, I see someone expanding upon and letting loose with their inner gonzo, so to speak. I see a filmmaker cutting up and getting frisky, going so far as to tell a tale of legendary personality rather than a historical record of legend.
I see some of the other Scott.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the famously infamous French emperor and Vanessa Kirby as his love Josephine, Napoleon could be classified as a backdoor comedy. We see Napoleon move up the chain of command, victory after victory, and past his defeats and ultimate exiles. We see his relationship with Josephine move between different kinds of intensity and passion, sometimes in a single scene. And we also see a large number of small moments where Napoleon is very awkward and strange, but also intimidating in an unpredictable way. As we weave between fact, speculation, and interpretation, Napoleon as both a larger-than-life character and as a movie, is presented and performed as both an alien who is just learning of Earth and as an alienated period in time. It’s as unique as a snowflake, or as a strike of lightning.
How so? Everything bizarre in Napoleon hinges on actor Joaquin Phoenix as the man, on director Ridley Scott as the visionary, and on screenwriter David Scarpa as the sage. All three blend together into a concoction of something strange that’s disguised as something spectacular. Phoenix as Napoleon, in one scene, sits in a chair as if he’s doing a planking challenge. In another, he yells in frustration about world leaders thinking they’re so great because “they have boats.” And in other places, he runs like a child, accepts apologies like a baby, and tells tall tales as if he’s smarter than everyone else. After bombing an Egyptian pyramid, he inspects a mummy with almost erotic fascination and curiosity. Almost. I’m still pondering that one.
There are other comedic moments outside of Napoleon himself, like the politicians of the day bickering and fighting with each other to the point of running away screaming. I got Make America Great Again chills here and there, which was likely a tenuous and superficial response to the revolution and the loyalists. But, make no mistake, this is Joaquin’s show. He’s both a puppeteer and a puppet for the character he’s portraying and for the director he’s working with. And the film is all the more intriguing because of it.
Is this a satire? A farce? Who knows. Napoleon is dreary for its time and deranged for all of time. It doesn’t completely work as a whole, as the meshing of period piece with zany antics override one another. The battle sequences are tremendous and brutal, reminding me of the more intimate in scope Civil War tale Emancipation’s unbridled violence. But then, soon after the death, the blood, and the heartbreak, comes the gag humor. No fart jokes that I can recall, but they would’ve been welcome.
As a film with personality, Napoleon is pitch brilliant. Many times I smiled and laughed out loud, especially when the great Vanessa Kirby shows Josephine as being madly in love while also a little beside herself for being madly in love with the kind of guy that Napoleon is played as. If you can imagine her performance playing off of Joaquin’s as being a skit in a Jackass movie, where one or both of them are being pranked, then it all makes more sense. It all becomes better understood.
I’m likely embellishing somewhat or telling a legend of my experience watching this film, but all things considered, this is appropriate for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. If anything, I’m rejoicing through imitation. Is Ridley imitating Tony with a bonkers movie of his own? Maybe a little, but he doesn’t hit the same notes as Tony would. Ridley wants his cake of history and eat it with a spork too. Tony would just embrace and move forward. Still, Napoleon is that one abstract that means a lot. A lot of…something. 3/5
Sincerely Yours in Moviegoing,
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