Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is a movie that French people love to hate. But despite harsh criticism in France, the historical epic smashed the box office and grossed over $9.76 million from 1.15 million tickets sold in its first two weeks in theaters.
Ironically, “Napoleon” got the lowest score of all of Scott’s recent movies on Allociné, the local equivalent of IMDb, with 2.3 stars out of 5 from 4,659 users’ reviews, yet it’s one of Scott’s biggest hits in France. “Napoleon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoléon Bonaparte, a Corsica-born officer who became Emperor of France, and Vanessa Kirby as his wife as Joséphine de Beauharnais, world premiered in Paris on Nov. 14, a few days after the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike.
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Scott’s last two movies, “The Last Duel” and “House of Gucci,” were warmly reviewed in France, and yet they sold only 425,000 and 800,000 tickets respectively during their releases there. But “Napoleon” isn’t totally bulletproof, says Comscore France’s Eric Marti. Released by Sony, the Apple production “debuted with a bang in France but lost 50% in its second week, which is a sign of a bad word-of-mouth,” says Marti, predicting that it will probably sell between 1.6 and 1.8 million tickets in France, on par with Scott’s 2012 movie “Prometheus.” It will still be one of his biggest successes in France — over the last 10 years the only Scott movie that performed better is “The Martian,” with 2.5 million tickets sold.
Variety talked to two Napoleon experts, media columnist Romain Marsily and historian Patrice Gueniffey, to understand the hostile reaction in the emperor’s native country.
“It’s not surprising that French people flocked to see ‘Napoleon’ in theaters when it opened — I just read a survey that said that 74% of people polled still admire Napoleon,” says Gueniffey, who’s written several critically-acclaimed books about the leader, including “Bonaparte: 1769–1802,” and has been talking about the controversial movie on nearly every French news channel.
“Stanley Kubrick tried and failed to make his Napoleon movie so we were all rooting for Ridley Scott to deliver his, so it’s been a big disappointment,” he says.
Before it even came out, the film was criticized by TV historian Dan Snow, who called out some of the inaccuracies in a viral TikTok post, prompting Scott to tell historical fact checkers to “get a life.”
But the deviations from fact aren’t the film’s biggest flaws, says Gueniffey, citing Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” as a successful biopic that fictionalized the life of Amadeus Mozart. “Although the story was invented, Forman crafted a convincing portrait of Mozart,” argues Gueniffey.
In “Napoleon,” everything is wrong, starting with the ages being “all mixed up,” says Gueniffey. Napoleon Bonaparte was 35 when he became Emperor of France and is played by Phoenix who is 49, “They didn’t try to make him look younger. He looks tired and uninspired,” he says.
Josephine, meanwhile, was six years older than Napoleon, which at the time was a “big age difference, like Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte,” he quips. But in the movie, she’s played by Kirby who is 14 years younger than Phoenix.
“Josephine was a wise woman who had already had a life by the time she married Napoleon, who was this younger and very ambitious man,” says Gueniffey. “That dynamic is completely altered in the film because Napoleon looks much older.” Similarly, the general Paul Barras, who was older than Napoleon, is played by 42 year-old Tahar Rahim.
“I’m not against invented scenes but when we see Napoleon putting his hand in the wounded horse to retrieve the bullet and give it to his mother, I thought it was grotesque,” Gueniffey says, adding, “He had a very distant relationship with his mother.”
The bombing of the pyramids is another scene that upset Gueniffey because “Napoleon killed a lot of people in Egypt, but he didn’t touch any landmarks,” he says. “He brought 130 scholars on this expedition to make an inventory of the Egyptian civilization, so if anything we owe Napoleon the creation of ancient Egyptian studies,” he says. Gueniffey points out another scene that didn’t actually happen, showing soldiers drowning in the pond during the Battle of Austerlitz. “Scott seemed to copy a scene from ‘Titanic’ there, but in reality, the pond was only 15 centimeters (6 inches) deep and soldiers died crossing it, but not from drowning,” he says.
Marsily, meanwhile, says he had low expectations about the film’s historical accuracy from watching the trailer. “When I saw the bombing of the pyramids on the trailer I thought it was ridiculous but I thought, ‘OK, Ridley Scott is giving us his take on Napoleon!,'” says Marsily, who was born in Corsica like Napoleon, and produced a documentary about the emperor for Vice TV France, which he headed.
What irritated French people the most, Marsily says, is the “lackluster” portrayal of Napoleon as a “mediocre” character.
“This film is like spitting in the face of French people because it feels like Ridley Scott ridiculed both Napoleon and the history of France,” says Marsily, who teaches at Science Politique, a prestigious French university.
“There is a fascination for Napoleon in France, even from people who hate him for reinstating slavery in the French West Indies and for his abuse of power once he became Emperor of France, but even these people are disappointed by the film because the film fails to substantially address his legacy, whether good or bad,” argues Marsily.
The film has been slammed for omitting that Napoleon reinstated slavery in the French West Indies after it had been abolished following the French Revolution. “That was Napoleon’s biggest regret,” says Marsily, “because like any revolutionary, Napoleon was in favor of abolishing it. But when he became Emperor of France, he made this decision under political pressure and a complicated geo-political context with the British.”
Marsily says Scott’s movie also fails to show the extent of Napoleon’s positive impact on French society with the creation of the Napoleonic Code, known as the Civil Code of 1804, which outlined laws pertaining to property rights, and individual rights such as freedom of religion.
“Napoleon was a symbol of meritocracy because he succeeded even though he wasn’t a noble, but watching the film you come out thinking he was a total idiot. Napoleon wasn’t a saint and no one expected Scott to give an evangelical portrayal of him, but his Napoleon is so grotesque that you keep wondering how he even got there,” he says.
Marsily says Josephine’s portrayal is also disappointing. “She was a bright woman who had an extraordinary destiny, but in the film she’s depicted as a socialite who collected lovers,” he says.
Gueniffey shares Marsily’s frustration about Napoleon’s embarrassing depiction. “When Kubrick was working on his Napoleon, he said he wanted to know how such an intelligent man could have been beaten so totally, and he would have probably answered that question in his film; but when you watch Ridley Scott’s movie, you just wonder how such a moron could have been such a renowned political and military strategist.” In reality, Gueniffey says, Napoleon was so charismatic than even those who hated him, like Madame de Staël, were fascinated. Madame de Stael described him as having “a seductive smile and a chilly gaze.”
Gueniffey says Scott also failed to delve into the “most captivating chapter of French history that spanned from the French Revolution to Napoleon’s Empire and introduced a plethora of exceptional characters.”
While Marsily didn’t mind the fictional bombing of the pyramids, he was bothered by the scene showing Napoleon on a mission to escape his exile in Elba in order to reunite with Josephine in France when in fact “she was already dead for several months by the time he got out.”
Marsily also says the ending of the movie that gives the number of casualties during the Napoleonic Wars is “shocking” and “totally ridiculous.” He explains, “Unfortunately during those times, wars caused a lot of deaths.”
Both Marsily and Gueniffey lament that no French director has ever tackled Napoleon with a proper biopic. The last French movie centered around Napoleon, Antoine de Caunes’ “Monsieur N.,” which came out 20 years ago, is a totally fictitious story set during the last years of Napoleon during his exile on the island of St Helena. But the historians are more forgiving towards that film than Scott’s “Napoleon,” because at least, “it doesn’t pretend to be the ultimate ‘Napoleon’ movie, and it gives a real sense of Napoleon’s spirit and personality,” says Gueniffey.
The last historical movie that unleashed comparable reactions in France is Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” says Gueniffey, but “nowhere near the backlash that ‘Napoleon’ has earned.”
After all though, wasn’t it Napoleon himself who famously said, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon”?
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