I I wasn’t sure what to expect when I booked a ticket to see Napoleon. The marketing surrounding Ridley Scott’s biopic of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has been confusing. His American slogan, “He came from nothing/He conquered everything,” is not only inaccurate (Bonaparte was born into the lower nobility) but it also struck me as a strangely feminine and authoritarian description of a man who gained immense power through war. salaries and political maneuvering – and whose rise ended France’s first attempt at a republic.
In my native France, Paris metro riders encountered side-by-side photos of Bonaparte, depicted in the Joaquin Phoenix film, with various captions. A common combination included a photo of Phoenix Bonaparte as a war leader, next to one of him kissing his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, each image adorned with the words “the conqueror” and “the lover” respectively.
All this made me wonder if Napoleon he would glorify his subject – if he would ask me to believe that he actually started from nothing and conquered everything, and if he would expect me to be captivated by Bonaparte’s trajectory. (And maybe in asking I forgot that Ridley Scott is English, and say what you want about the English, but one thing they’re not particularly prone to is praising Napoleon Bonaparte.)
What I found instead was a film that knowingly commits flamboyant historical inaccuracies, but reveals a compelling truth about Bonaparte’s rise (and fall) to power.
Napoleon opens with the public execution of Marie Antoinette, months after that of her husband, King Louis XVI. France then descended into the Reign of Terror, a period during which the presumed enemies of the revolution were monitored, imprisoned and executed. Historians estimate that at least 300,000 people were arrested, 17,000 executed and 10,000 died in prison in just one year.
Bonaparte took advantage of the period of instability that (somewhat inevitably) followed the revolution: he first organized a coup d’état in 1799 to become head of government of the first French republic, then proclaimed himself emperor of the French in 1804 The emperor’s reign presented some differences with the monarchy (I leave it to historians to dispute them in more detail), certain key elements, shall we say, were borrowed from it. For example, Bonaparte was crowned in a religious ceremony inside the medieval Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. In the event of death, power must disappear not to an elected leaderbut to his heir — or, in the absence of an heir, to his brother.
Bonaparte’s legacy is complex and I do not intend to settle a debate here. (The historian Charles-Éloi Vial highlighted Bonaparte’s role in the “modernization of the (French) administration” in comments to France 24.) But Napoleon is an interesting examination of social movements, violence, backlash, and how France ended up crowning an emperor just 11 years after beheading a king.
One gets the sense, in the film’s timeline, that France may have been so scarred by the brutal consequences of the revolution that it not only returned to monarchy, but went further. The Reign of Terror was horrific – the film makes it viscerally obvious and reinforces that what France needed to do was stop this part, not find us an emperor. It is, from this point of view, a surprisingly progressive film: Bonaparte’s reign is (rightly, I think) depicted as volatile and, for all the declared popularity of its leader, infinitely fragile. France is as quick to place itself in the hands of Bonaparte as to renounce it; he is exiled not once, but twice.
About those historical inaccuracies: I don’t mind a movie taking artistic license, as long as it’s clear when certain things are made up. For example, in Napoleon, when Bonaparte, after his wife Joséphine unkindly told him that he had gained weight, he replied: “Destiny brought me this lamb chop”. This particular line seems almost designed to go viral on TikTok, where Apple (co-producer and distributor of the film) took care to share it, and where it has already inspired a few videos.
The problem with Napoleon it’s that he knows how to lie a little too believably. His battle scenes, for example, have an air of craftsmanship. Paul Biddiss, the former British paratrooper who advised Scott on these scenes, “led five hundred extras on a ‘training camp'” in Napoleonic-era barracks, “studied old military manuals” and generally paid attention to details, depending on the New Yorker.
So when the film told me something about the historical battles it recreates, the natural impulse would have been to believe it. And yet, the Internet is full of fact checks quite spectacular freedoms: contrary to the representations in the film, Bonaparte never fired on the pyramids of Egypt; he didn’t go into battle with the cavalry, there was no big frozen lake at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and the list goes on.
Some of these liberties take on symbolic meaning: Bonaparte is shown in the film witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette, and although it never happened, I can understand it being an effective way to show the impact of the consequences of the revolution on Bonaparte. There are only so many ways to depict the act of thinking on screen, and this is one of them – and as many people want to find out that it didn’t actually happen, but serves as a shortcut to telling a story, so fine.
This is what art is capable of, and perhaps what it is for: articulating an emotional or intellectual truth while sometimes distancing itself from the facts. From this point of view, Napoleon is a worthy exploration of the march of history and the slow, often chaotic cycles of progress.