By Manohla Dargis
When he was in his mid-20s and first visited the studio where he would later shoot “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles is said to have likened the movies to the best electric train set a boy could have. Welles is a defining inspiration for Ridley Scott, who is best known for monumentally scaled historical epics including “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” In these movies as well as in his latest spectacle, “Napoleon,” Scott plays, to push Welles’ metaphor further, with the biggest train sets conceivable — giant, beautiful, gleaming machines that can, by turns, transport and overwhelm you. He’s a heavy metal guy.
“Napoleon” is a very big movie, as you would expect given that it follows its title subject from the bloody delirium of the French Revolution to battlefields across Europe, Africa and, catastrophically, into Russia. More startling, however, is that the movie is also often eccentric and at times eccentrically funny. You expect refined craft and technique from Scott and the pleasures of spectacle filmmaking at its most expansive. You expect heft, seriousness, not snort-out-loud humor, which I guess explains why, while watching the movie, I flashed on Karl Marx’s axiom about history being first tragedy and then farce.
It opens in Paris amid that convulsion of violence called the Terror, with surging, shouting crowds and the metallic hiss of the falling guillotine blade. Aristocrats are losing their heads (Scott re-creates one execution with gory verisimilitude), and Napoleon Bonaparte — a mesmerizing, off-kilter, lumpish Joaquin Phoenix — will soon profit from the chaos. Before long, the story has jumped forward and now Napoleon is in the southern French port city of Toulon, where he strategically routs the Anglo-Spanish fleet that has taken the city.
Scott establishes Napoleon’s early rise to power with bold imagery and brusque narrative economy, vividly setting the historical moment with scenes from both inside the corridors of revolutionary power — enter Robespierre — and the surging anarchy out in the streets. Napoleon’s rise at this point is largely facilitated by politician Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), a silky operator with the pacific mien of a patiently lurking predator and an inescapable aristocratic hauteur. Everyone addresses one another as Citizen, which, in Barras’ case comes across as the 18th-century version of performative political correctness. Together, Barras and Napoleon consolidate their positions. Exit Robespierre.
Joséphine (a fine Vanessa Kirby) makes her entrance soon after, catching Napoleon’s notice (her decolletage helps) and ushering in the story’s second plotline. A widow whose husband lost his head during the Terror, Joséphine has been recently released from prison, an ordeal that has left her with short, choppy hair and a very keen sense of self-preservation. It’s not at all clear what she actually sees in Napoleon, other than his uniform, growing reputation and obvious interest in her. She’s (relatively) poor for a society woman and has children, so desperation plays a role, although the movie suggests that what Joséphine truly sees is power.
The war scenes are extraordinary, vigorous, harrowing and rightly grotesque. The tremendous scale of some of these battles helps give them their visceral power, as does Scott’s complex staging and use of masses of human actors and horses. With cannon blasts, bursts of smoke and the sights and sounds of armies of men thundering over fields toward their deaths, he conveys the frenzy of war, its heat and terror. As the fighting grimly continues, and the body count mounts, the absolute waste of it all becomes overwhelming, which is, I imagine, why Scott seems so uninterested in Napoleon’s vaunted military genius.
“Napoleon” is consistently surprising partly because it doesn’t conform to the conventions of mainstream historical epics, which is especially true of its startling, adamantly unromanticized title character. (The movie also doesn’t always conform to the historical record, and some may take issue with the portrayal of the Battle of Austerlitz.) In the early scenes, Napoleon seems to be another of Phoenix’s taciturn, unnervingly volatile, enigmatically damaged, violent men. The difference is that this Napoleon, with his bloat, scowls and consuming needs, often resembles nothing as much as an angrily petulant baby, one whose cruelty and pathological vanity make the horror he unleashes unnervingly familiar.
‘Napoleon’: Rated R for intense scenes of war. Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes. In theaters.