Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Flesh and Blood: NAPOLEON

I wonder how many people know that the saying about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, is a paraphrase of Karl Marx? Or how many know that he was talking about Napoleon and Napoleon’s nephew’s respective coups? Regardless, the quote was on my mind during Ridley Scott’s Napoleon because the film is at once a large-scale epic of combat and tragedy, and a scrambling farcical comedy of interpersonal pettiness. It seems to be arguing that history isn’t just repeating. It’s always tragedy and farce playing out simultaneously. The one feeds the other; the wheels of time spin forward with the push of the pathetic egos of petulant leaders. Scott’s been on this kick for a while, melding the historical scope of his Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven with the messier stuff of small, fallible human foibles. This preoccupation must’ve started bubbling up with his brilliantly, bleakly absurd 2013 drug-war thriller The Counselor, and he’s continued to ramp up both the humor and the pathos in films more—medieval Rashomon with a bitter satiric edge, The Last Duel—and less—broad schtick ensemble chaos House of Gucci—successful. His Napoleon is among the best of these, balanced on dual intertwined through-lines of its subject’s tactical brilliance and pathetic personal drama.

He has in Joaquin Phoenix a perfect co-conspirator for this tone. The actor brings a sniveling underdog quality that’s both charmingly pompous and irritatingly arrogant, and never far from wallowing in self-pitying psychological myopia. He stalks the frame like a glowering child, with a posture that’s somehow simultaneously hunched and puffed-up. He speaks with the half-swallowed bark of a man so deeply insecure he needs to stomp up and down the halls of power convincing himself he belongs. Rarely is swagger so needy. His Napoleon is a man of unchecked ambition and bottomless insecurity. The film takes him from his days as a young solider, through his unlikely rises and falls through the ranks to eventually become Emperor of France, and then sees him straight through his exiles and death. Dramatic scenes are cut like comedy, while the battles are big and booming, bloody and legible. Track the tactics and the players with Scott’s camera and you see the triangulation and bloodthirsty brilliance of the battlefield. (Cannonballs smash through horses. Swords slash through jugulars. Bodies plunge bleeding into the ice.) Then we swoop through the palaces and backrooms where the real intrigue is the scheming and intrigue of power-hungry men (a slew of fantastic character performances) and their unrepentant appetites. When Napoleon churlishly retorts, “I enjoy my meals” as a way of rebuffing accusations of his piggishness, we see the unfurling of an ego and the melding of the personal and political. He never has enough. Later, he’ll fume at an English representative, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” like he’s a tantruming teen.

He's scary and funny and altogether uncomfortably human. Napoleon’s key romantic entanglement with wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) is shot through with some legitimate tenderness and complicated feelings. But it’s also sloppy and pathetic with heaving, fast copulation and sweaty cuckoldry. His position of imperial power is constantly undercut with his complicated interpersonal ironies—even the famous painting of his coronation, replicated here in flesh and blood, is triangulated with the undercurrents of jealousies and rivalries and unspoken power plays in every darting glance. He’s a man of great power, and great damage, with little control over his immature id. When he at long last has an heir, he holds the crying infant while we hear the rumble of cannon fire in the distance. The personal and political intertwine with foreboding for the future. In each twist of his personal life, we see a reflection of the consequential reign of terror he inflicts on his country. In the scariest, funniest scene, he goes scrambling, tumbling down a flight of stairs mid-coup before returning with the military behind him. He barely collects himself before, staring at representatives from behind drawn weapons, he offers, “Now, then. Shall we vote?” Out of such slights, the world turns, and people die.

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