A few weeks after Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (here’s our review of Killers of the Flower Moon), the on-demand streaming platform Apple TV+ makes a powerful return to the big screens of movie theaters – in partnership, this time, with Sony Pictures (worldwide) and Eagle Pictures (in Italy)- for Napoleon, a new blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix.
Written by David Scarpa, who for the author of Alien and Blade Runner had already signed the screenplays for All the Money in the World and several episodes of the TV show The man in the high castle – and who also signed the script of The Gladiator 2, the filming of which will resume in Malta in the coming weeks after the long interruption caused by the Hollywood strikes – tells the epic rise and fall of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon’s story traces his unstoppable rise to power from general to ruler filtered through his stormy relationship with his one true love, Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby, star of the Mission: Impossible saga. From political strategies in the chambers of power to visionary military tactics on the battlefield and private vices in the bedroom, Ridley Scott with Napoleon repurposes the celebrated epic of his cinema but juxtaposes it with the satire of myth already pioneered in House of Gucci.
Napoleon: closing the circle
With Gladiator 2 already in the works and coming in 2024 and another movie – the first western of his career, probably an adaptation of the novel Wraiths of the Broken Land by S Craig Zahler – officially announced these days, Napoleon is in some ways a romantic closing of the circle for Ridley Scott, who had begun in 1977 his career with one of the greatest Napoleonic-era movie ever, The Duellists, which came two years after the greatest Napoleonic movie of all time, Kubrick’s 1975 movie Barry Lyndon
That very Barry Lyndon that Kubrick decided to make after years of pursuing an epic kolossal about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte later abandoned (discouraged not only by production difficulties but also by the commercial flop of a very similar film, Waterloo by Sergej Fëdorovič Bondarčuk, released in the 1970) and to whom Ridley Scott pays tribute, in his Napoleon, through the iconic notes of the The Piano Trio No. 2 by Schubert.
Notes that Kubrick chose for his adaptation of The Luck of Barry Lyndon and that here the author of The Martian sets off, with impeccable cinephilic and nostalgic gusto, right during the reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo. However, what is truly extraordinary about Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is the once again disorienting approach through which the author decides to create his version of the French Emperor.
Ridley Scott vs. epic
For once against the epic – he who perhaps most of all in Hollywood brought peplum and sword and horse movies back into fashion with such works as The Last Duel and Robin Hood, to say nothing of the masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven, unmatched in its director’s cut version – with Napoleon Ridley Scott makes a film split in two.
As early as the photography of Dariusz Wolski (either all ochre or all blue-gray with no half-measures even when it comes to tracing paintings such as Paul Delaroche’s ‘Napoleon at Fontainebleau’ or Jean-Léon Gérôme’s ‘Bonaparte Before the Sphinx’), the movie at the grandeur of the staging of the huge pitched battles (which the director often and frequently observes ‘from outside,’ or from above, almost borrowing the language of real-time strategic video games) alternates glimpses of daily life of Napoleon and Joséphine.
The roles of the two spouses are constantly reversed by shifting from dominant to dominated: it is in these sequences that the real idea of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon comes out, a biopic that does not seek to glorify the exploits of its protagonist but on the contrary tends to belittle the man and his exploits (exemplary in this regard is the subplot of the Moscow fires, closed by the candor of a little girl In the ironically Francis Ford Coppola-style ending.).
Unfortunately, Ridley Scott was not given the same freedom that Scorsese enjoyed with Killers of the Flower Moon and the version of Napoleon distributed to theaters was subject to several cuts: The director, whose career is studded with masterful director’s cuts, has already announced a nearly four-hour extended version coming to Apple TV+ and home-video.
Nonetheless, even in this two-and-a-half-hour montage, the vision behind Napoleon could not be more accomplished: a mocking, ironic almost-comedy, the only possible colossal since the misunderstood signature parody of House of Gucci. Yet another stroke by an unpredictable artist who has spent the entire second half of his career destroying or overturning the works of the first.