French critics take aim at Ridley Scott's Napoleon biopic

French critics slam Ridley Scott’s Napoleon biopic as they round on ‘petulant manchild’ Joaquin Phoenix and take aim at ‘boring’ movie with ‘deeply clumsy’ and historically inaccurate scenes

  • Director Ridley Scott has slammed critics for highlighting ‘historical inaccuracy’
  • But French critics have dragged the film and portrayal of Napoleon as ‘boring’

French critics have slammed Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Napoleon biopic as ‘deeply clumsy’ and ‘boring’ as the film premiered in Paris this week.

Despite garnering glowing reviews in Britain and the US, the epic starring Joaquin Phoenix as the marauding French emperor has riled critics on the continent.

Historian Patrice Gueniffey, writing in Le Point, slammed the film as ‘the film of an Englishman… very anti-French’ and criticised the director for having ‘wokist biases’. 

A reviewer for GQ said the film left them ‘bored’, adding there was something ‘clumsy’ but ‘unintentionally funny’ about seeing French soldiers shout ‘Vive la France’ with American accents.

Le Figaro said the film should be renamed ‘Barbie and Ken under the Empire’ and added that Napoleon is portrayed as a ‘sentimental brute with a gun in hand and quick to shed a tear’.

Canadian French-language newspaper Le Devoir led with the headline ‘Not Waterloo, but not Austerlitz either,’ referencing Napoleon’s futile last stand in Belgium and his tactical ‘masterpiece’ against the Russians in today’s Czechia.

The article described Phoenix’s Napoleon as a ‘petulant man-child who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing’. 

Criticism of the film’s direction builds on growing claims of inaccuracies from historians including Dan Snow ahead of its release in cinemas on November 22.

Despite having largely positive reviews in Britain and the US, Ridley Scott’s film about Napoleon is already making waves ahead of its release. Pictured: Joaquin Phoenix in the film

Phoenix plays Napoleon in a hotly-awaited biopic which focuses on his tainted and complex relationships amid a stunning rise to power against the backdrop of the French Revolution

A critic for GQ led with the headline: ‘Joaquin Phoenix grimaces, Ridley Scott is bored and so are we’

Le Devoir slammed Phoenix’s Napoleon as a ‘petulant man-child who doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing’, leading with ‘Not Waterloo, but not Austerlitz either’

Patrice Gueniffey, writing for Le Point, said the film was ‘the film of an Englishman… very anti-French’

Cnet said the film’s inaccuracies ‘[undoubtedly fueled] a certain frustration between what we expected, what we wanted, and what the final result is’

C News said the film character was ‘too linear to appreciate [Napoleon’s] scope and never ‘touched on the substance of what made [him] an essential statesman’

Le Figaro took aim at the biopic as a ‘reductive version of history’ and said the film should be renamed ‘Barbie and Ken under the Empire’

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, French academic Dr Estelle Paranque acknowledged the film’s inaccuracies but insisted that ‘it is a movie, it is not a documentary’.

But, speaking of Scott’s depiction of the execution of Marie Antoinette, she said: ‘It did annoy me a little because he made her kind of fearless and a bit feisty, and at the time honestly she was not.’

Other critics have pointed out that Napoleon was not present when Antoinette was guillotined.

Dr Paranque added: ‘She tried to remain dignified at the end, but I don’t think she would have been that bold. And obviously Napoleon wasn’t there.’ 

But director Ridley Scott has hit back at accusations of historical ‘inaccuracies’. In an interview with the New Yorker, he told a critic to ‘get a life’ when pressed.

‘There are 400 books written about him. Maybe the first one was the most accurate, the next one is already doing a version of the author,’ he said.

‘By the time you get to book 399, guess what, there’s a lot of speculation.’

But the dismissal has not been enough to stop French commentators from laying into the film’s portrayal of the first French emperor – nor his historical setting. 

Patrice Gueniffey, for Le Point, said Scott portrayed the emperor as an ‘ambitious Corsican ogre, a sullen boor and a cad with his wife’.

CNet branded it a ‘shaky film that chooses while refusing to choose’, and added: ‘Perhaps the film had everything to gain from being called Joséphine, because it loses too much by being called Napoleon.’

The review also said that the film ‘obscures numerous elements, notably geopolitical, which explain the rise and fall of Napoleon’s character’.

‘The footage multiplies the historical holes and perhaps they are more obvious to us due to our educational training, undoubtedly fueling a certain frustration between what we expected, what we wanted, and what the final result is,’ the review went on.

C News said Scott was forced to make ‘shortcuts’ which stand out as ‘unforgiveable omissions in the historical narrative’.

Le Devoir’s review also took aim at Phoenix’s performance, calling it the film’s ‘fundamental problem’ 

Dan Snow was criticised by the director of the new film earlier this month after criticising some of the scenes in the production’s trailer. 

The historian pointed out that Napoleon did not fight at the pyramids nor did he ever witness Marie Antoinette’s execution.

Snow also took issue with the film’s tagline, ‘He came from nothing, he conquered everything,’ because Napoleon never conquered Britain.

‘I love historical epics. I love Ridley Scott. But if you’re watching this movie, it ain’t a documentary,’ he said. 

Scott hit back at his critics in an interview with The New Yorker, telling a historian to ‘get a life’.

His 28th feature is set for release in the UK and US on November 22.

A director’s cut lasting 270 minutes is also reportedly in the works, giving Scott more space to tell his story.

The story is expected to include detail on Napoleon’s personal relationships, inter alia ‘more of Josephine’s life before she meets Napoleon’. 

US actor Joaquin Phoenix poses during the photocall for the world premiere of the film Napoleon, in Paris on November 14, 2023

Joaquin Phoenix and director Ridley Scott attend the ‘Napoleon’ World Premiere at Salle Pleyel on November 14, 2023 in Paris

The release comes as a letter Napoleon wrote during his doomed invasion of Russia goes on sale for nearly £45,000 ($55,000) in the US. 

In the handwritten document, Napoleon told a key adviser how more than half of Moscow had been ‘consumed by fire’.

He added: ‘I have taken up lodging in the residence of the Tsars, the Kremlin, which is a form of citadel surrounded by high walls…’

The emperor boasted of finding ‘cellars full of wine’, which he said would be of ‘great help’.

When the Russians refused to surrender, Napoleon and his starving men were forced to retreat West amidst the country’s fierce winter. 

By the time they made it back to France, only 110,000 of the original contingent of 650,000 men were still alive. 

The story of the failed invasion is covered in Scott’s film. A closing note estimates Napoleon’s wars cost three million lives.

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