Should I stay or Should I go?
For a while, since Napoleon, the film by Ridley Scott, was released in France on 14 November, I was facing this conundrum that was as insisting and repetitive as the famous line sung in the 1980s by the Clash!
On the one hand, I was reluctant to see a film in English about a French iconic historical figure who had had so much trouble with ‘Perfidious Albion’.(1)
As a French person, I was biased and suspicious. And yet, Ridley Scott was known for being a francophile who also lives in Southern France, and is one of the greatest filmmakers of the last 50 years, having directed such masterpieces as Blade Runner or Gladiator. I told myself he should be expected to be fair and well-advised in his narrative choices. Added to that, there was no doubt that the rendering of the famous Napoleonic campaigns were to be remarkable cinematic performances.
On the other hand, the film had been discussed extensively for months in the French press and media by critics, historians, movie buffs, and even politicians. The general opinion that I had formed was that it was not a success as I had even overheard such qualifiers as ‘boring’ and ‘inaccurate’. However, it didn’t stop the audience in France from flocking to movie theaters and giving positive reviews.
Finally, as it was scheduled, in the original version, at my small local cinema, curiosity, and good sense overcame my chauvinistic quandaries.
‘Necessarily Incomplete Historical Fresco’ or ‘Awkward Partly Fictional Period Love Story’ (or both)?
First of all, let’s start with rectifying two wrong dates that appear on screen at the beginning, Napoleon’s date of birth is NOT 1768 but 1769 (15 August) otherwise, he would not have been French, but a citizen of the Republic of Genoa as Corsica where he was born was ceded to France by treaty in 1768. Similarly, Josephine was 6 years older than he was and not only one year. The actors’ real age in the film respects Hollywood’s mainstream expectations (wife much younger than husband) but not the reality of both characters’ age difference!
The film’s length being two hours and thirty minutes, it was normal not to expect to attend a complete and detailed unfolding of all Napoleon’s aspects of life as so much happened between the 30 years of his rise and downfall: the Revolution, the first Republic, the Consulate, the Coronation and the Empire let alone the many wars he waged, the famous battles, the conquests, the defeats.
When Napoleon was not at war, he deeply transformed French Society and many consider that today’s modern French institutions, for example, derive from his time as an Emperor and a reformer.
The film lingers on a few pivotal events (meeting with Josephine, their wedding and divorce, the Egypt campaign, the Coronation, Austerlitz battle, the Russian debacle, Waterloo defeat, both exiles, birth of his son -‘L’Aiglon’(2) ) among which some are purely fictional: for instance, he was not present at Marie-Antoinette’s Guillotine execution and the pointed top of 2 Pyramids were not destroyed by his canons. I was disappointed though not to hear him exclaim his famous quote:
Soldats, songez que, du haut de ces pyramides, quarante siècles vous contemplent.” (3)
Nevertheless, let’s not be carried away by reminiscences of school history lessons!
Even if the title of the movie is Napoleon, the spectator realizes quickly the topic is not mainly about the intertwined destiny of a man and a nation. Both serve a guiding thread that is precisely about this man and his life passion for a woman, Josephine de Beauharnais. Indeed, in the course of their love story, we learn that he hurriedly returns from Egypt because his wife was cheating on him, that he continues to love her even after their divorce, and that his last word on his deathbed was ‘Josephine’(which is pure invention, by the way)!
And yet, despite the beautifully filmed Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, the constant close-ups of the stern Joaquim Phoenix’s facial expressions that haunted me long after the movie, the majestic filming of the battles, the sumptuous costumes, the clever choice of the love story over the judgemental lessons drawn from a controversial leader that could have upset the French altogether,
I did not enjoy the movie. I could neither feel any empathy for the tumultuous protagonists’ love story nor be satisfied with the difficult task of recreating a dense period of French History.
I wish some of the major changes in French Society could have been -even briefly- brushed for the international audience. What could they retain of the man otherwise? That he was an upset lover who was making love when not war and making war when not love?
Finally, I don’t intend to be too negative as the film made me discuss this period and interestingly delve into it, so much so, that I found out I was the direct descendant of a soldier who fought (and survived) the 1812 battles since the Great Army archives are available for all to consult on line.
Have you seen the movie? What would you like to add or discuss? Do you agree or disagree with my perception of the film?
1. Among the multitude of books/ essays written on Napoleon, Josephine, or this historical period I’d like to recommend a trilogy by Canadian author Sandra Gulland: ‘The Josephine B. Trilogy’, it’s extremely enjoyable and thoroughly researched.
2. In reference to the Russian retreat, I used to read to both my sons, with a dramatic tone, this very poignant poem by Victor Hugo “L’Expiation” and they were totally under its spell![Here’s the link to the text in French and English]
‘Perfide Albion’ is an expression commonly used by the French whenever they’re not happy with the UK’s attitude towards them, which originated in the post-Revolution era, when the Entente was not cordial at all but had it ever been so between the French and the English?
‘Soldiers, bear in mind that from the peaks of these pyramids, forty centuries of history are watching you!’
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER