An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine.
I would love to read more about Napoleon's neo-Tolstoyean perspective on the role of coincidence and contingency in history sketched in outline in Florian Deroo's excellent review of this film in Sabzian.
[Despite its ahistoricity,] Napoleon conveys a fairly consistent way of thinking about the past. To begin with, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras are stripped of all ideology. Scott is not interested in political history. Girondins, Montagnards, Thermidorians: the different groups of the Revolution are reduced to an undistinguished rabble of Frenchmen punching each other in assembly halls.
If Stanley Kubrick’s unrealized biopic of the French general would have included an entire scene discussing the Treaty of Tilsit, then this is how Scott’s Napoleon announces the disastrous Russian campaign: “I am sad today. Tsar Alexander has turned against me and forced me to invade Russia.”
Napoleon bungles all refined conversation, talking over Joséphine when they first meet or stuttering that his second wife, the Austrian Marie Louise, is “beau-beautiful.” Scott’s own oeuvre, from Gladiator (2000) to Exodus (2014), has so accustomed us to the high eloquence of historical epics that such moments are nothing less than startling, as if we are watching a mumblecore film with a $200 million budget.
Scott delights in assigning great significance to minor factors: Napoleon’s jealousy, Joséphine’s pneumonia, the rain at Waterloo, a lucky shot – these things shape historical outcomes. Emphasizing such particularities was typical of a certain kind of historiography under postmodernism, which mistrusted the orderly developments of linear, progressive history. Napoleon’s messy and playful aesthetic – its bricolage of registers, intertextual references, emphasis on historical style over historical content – is then the formal expression of that sensibility. […] If contemporary viewers seek representations of the past that can be coherently linked to an uncertain present, then Napoleon’s fragmented chaos doesn’t make the cut, and it is hardly surprising that its public reception has been largely negative. […] Coarsely placing one chance coincidence after another, Scott fails to distinguish even a minimal hierarchy of causes. Stressing the unpredictable can be lever of critique, but when exaggerated, it sinks into critical laziness.
— Florian Deroo (Sabzian)
Renders one of the most interesting and complex eras in modern history as a blandly conservative (and decidedly British) morality tale with a vague thesis about revolutionary excess and the dangers of the mob.
— Luke Savage (Jacobin)