When one thinks about director Ridley Scott, “style” and “substance” come immediately to mind, no matter the project. Scott has never held one over the other; instead, they are synonymous with his directing style – artful with intent. No matter the landscape, regardless of the character, whether likable or repugnant, Scott has not shied away from the material ultimately put in front of an audience. “Epic” also comes to mind as his latest film, Napoleon, expands in theaters this holiday weekend.
A certain duality then exists between the style and substance of the director and his lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix (Beau is Afraid) who plays the brooding, nearly diminutive Napoleon Bonaparte. While David Scarpa’s script revolves around the historical figure’s rise to power, a subject in which the brilliant general cum emperor was well versed, Scott and Scarpa elect to focus on the man’s sexual conquests and his personal conquest of Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby).
Phoenix is as relentless as he is haunting in his take on Napoleon. One might question the actor’s stature concerning the real-life subject. However, to take one over the other would be to dismiss the power behind his voice. The story starts when Napoleon was but a peasant amongst the British rule over the French in the late 1700s, much akin to the way of the world today. One of the tactile senses Phoenix brings to the role is that of someone who craves change inwardly when, within the next frame, the character is acting on his instincts.
Conversely, Kirby plays Joséphine as willful, someone who humorously stimulates Napoleon, calling him to action. Scott has gone on record stating that the future version of the film due on Apple TV+ will significantly expand Josephine’s role. For now, the dark, dry, perhaps even droll way Napoleon and Josephine interact within Scott’s style and substance is subliminally exciting and relentless. Even during his campaigns on the battlefield to restore French superiority against overwhelming odds with the British on one end and the Russians on the other and a woefully under-supported militia behind him, there is still the maddening love between them – even as Joséphine pussyfoots around.
To that point, Scott and Scarpa reference numerous letters from Napoleon to Joséphine with no response. At one point, this raises Napoleon’s ire, and Phoenix’s quiet rage comes into complete focus. The unanswered letters felt like a duality to today’s immediate interconnectedness and how we react when someone does not respond to our message – the intent has not changed, but the response is instantaneous. Scott and Scarpa use this to answer for the start of Napoleon’s downfall.
However, the political landscape is as much a direct reference to today’s environment, something Napoleon had direct control over. Phoenix never gives the impression that he is power hungry; however, the conquests within his bed chamber and on the various battlefields suggest something entirely different about the man, as he realizes his people need his stern hand. There is an eccentricity about Phoenix’s Napoleon that is inescapable, and it is a welcome take leading the audience toward the clash between the comfortably wealthy leaders (Tahar Rahim’s Paul Barras comes to mind) who are content on keeping their wealth at the expense of the populous, something Napoleon wouldn’t stand for.
The epic nature of Napoleon’s substance is not within its length but in its style. Dariusz Wolski’s drenched, sometimes dark cinematography takes time to convey the scale within each battle. Wolski also captures a cheeky intimacy as Napoleon conducts himself as a head of state while he and Josephine carry on their romantic interludes. Similarly, Martin Phipps’ score gives further rise to the immediacy within which the characters interact, a counterpoint to the time in which the film is set – yes, the people needed help; they needed a leader who had their best interests at hand, while, uncannily, Napoleon had his hands in a different place. Phoenix demonstrates that the man was capable of both, even if his interests ultimately reflected one need over the other. That’s the brooding power inherent in Napoleon, speaking volumes toward Scott’s ability to expound his energy.
Napoleon won’t be to everyone’s tastes, as evinced by Scott’s pull quotes from recent interviews about the film and French critics’ reactions to the film. The dualities inherent in Scott’s style and substance remain intact.