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Apple Studios, 2023


Ridley Scott / David Scarpa

Reading Time:

6 minutes

NapoleonAccelerate (WCWSCSXBAM4IZ3E4)
00:00 / 07:09

📷 : John Hanley



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Reba Chaisson


In the 2009 song, “So Ambitious,” Jay-Z raps that lack of ambition is “so wack.” But is there such a thing as too much ambition? I ponder this while watching the 2-hour 38-minute movie, Napoleon, as it follows the Frenchman’s military, political and personal exploits. 

The film opens in 1789 with the dethroning of King Louis XVI and the subsequent beheading of his wife, Mrs. “Let them eat cake” herself, Queen Marie Antoinette. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, 20-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, dressed in military vestments, watches the violence and celebration around the uprising and executions as if deep in thought. Already a well-known and influential military official in the French government, he stands alone and pensive - perhaps relieved he is not the one heading to the guillotine. Oops, pun not intended! Or maybe he is just wondering what all the upheaval means for him.

Napoleon, the movie, consists mostly of war and tension. Indeed, France experiences constant war and turmoil throughout Bonaparte’s 51 years, much of which he initiates. In this sense, though, the movie is similar to the 2002 film, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is three full hours of war – for a noble cause, but war nonetheless. And as exemplified in the United States’s own profitable military industrial complex, so much war creates opportunities for opportunists looking to increase their wealth and advance their status. As other French officials conspire to move closer to the throne, so too does Napoleon.

British writings and caricatures of the period describe Napoleon Bonaparte as “diminutive, raging and boastful—like a child throwing a temper tantrum.” In one English cartoon, for example, he is depicted as a small man sitting at a large table and cutting his meat with an oversized knife, which happens to be his sword. Bonaparte was about 5’6”, roughly average for French men during his lifetime. Still, his stature (and the jokes that come with it) remains the master narrative centuries later, as can be seen in this film, where he is depicted as he was then by the country he hated most. Given this contentious relationship, Napoleon, the film, should be viewed with skepticism.

After the 1789 coup d état, French officials ask Napoleon to put down subsequent revolutions, and he later jumps at the chance to lead wars against Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and other countries vying for European supremacy. On each request, he forcefully reiterates his love for France and willingness to fight for his country, but it is well understood that he expects something real and grand in return with each victory. His determination is palpable, as shown in the battle he leads against the British.

Physically stumbling when heading towards a wall in his fight to break up Great Britain’s blockade of French ships, Napoleon refuses the help of his comrades when he is knocked down awkwardly by the vibration of cannon fire. Knocking their hands away, he insists, “I’m fine.” He then gets up and clumsily continues to run towards the wall as if unfazed (physically or psychologically) by the incident. It strikes as if he has something to prove, or a goal he is striving for, refusing to be deterred.

Dubbed “Napoleonic Wars,” each of Napoleon’s skirmishes is bloodier and more brutal than the last in terms of the numbers of troops he loses on the battlefield. For the ones he wins, he is rewarded with medals and promotions. As he gains fame in France for his military exploits, women call on him. Yes, a man in a military uniform – nothing’s changed! Josephine, a war widow, sends a message to Bonaparte requesting his company. Smitten by the mother of two, he marries her and soon after informs her that she must bear his son. Typically, male members of monarchy are concerned with successors whom they prefer to be male. But at this point, Napoleon is a military general, and the monarchy no longer exists in France. 

When Josephine isn’t pregnant in a year’s time, Bonaparte confronts her at the dinner table in front of numerous servers and guests. Sitting opposite Josephine, he stares and yells, “Why aren’t you pregnant with a child yet?” The dinner chatter stops. “We’ve had plenty of lovemaking, why haven’t you bore me a child?” Initially shocked but settling in and taking his comment with ease, Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby (Mission Impossible: Fallout, Pieces of a Woman), laughs and responds, “We don’t make nearly enough love,” implying that Bonaparte engages in sex with a goal rather than lovemaking. Bonaparte’s comments not only suggest his preoccupation with legacy but also his own sexual insecurity. It is important, it seems, that their friends know he is “taking care of business,” that they think of him as virile and Josephine as barren or somehow defective.

Contemporary research indicates that tall men are paid more money, promoted more frequently, and given higher deference in everyday interactions than men who are shorter. This heightism, while prevalent across time, has only recently been recognized as an implicit bias that manifests as favoritism for some and discrimination against others based on one’s stature.  Other than the usual career aspirations, Napoleon’s “Napoleon complex” helps explain his unrelenting determination to prove the reigning master narratives about him wrong. But in his desperation to do so, he instead proves them right. He is immature, boastful, and prone to throwing temper tantrums. 

As the movie suggests, Napoleon is even preoccupied with the idea that friends may think he is less of a man because he and his wife have not yet bore a son. Accomplishing this is more about affirming his manhood to others than it is about experiencing the joy of having a child of his own. In a weird ceremony, he even goes so far as to crown himself Emperor of France, a role with no ruling authority, simply to satisfy his ambitions and to prove he is better than he believes others think of him. 

There are some real problems with this film with respect to the timeline of events and showing the dates to offer us a sense of the chronology. Nonetheless, the gist of Napoleon’s life and travails are presented on screen. Despite his military accomplishments, wealth, and his ascendancy in the French government, he still feels as if these are not enough. Hmmm. That Napoleon complex is serious business. I guess too much ambition can be wack too.

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