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'Napoleon' director Ridley Scott: ‘The French Don’t Even Like Themselves’ - Let’s talk

Napoleon director Ridley Scott: ‘The French Don’t Even Like Themselves’ - Let’s talk
Napoleon director Ridley Scott: ‘The French Don’t Even Like Themselves’ - Let’s talk Copyright Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP - Apple TV+, Columbia Pictures
Copyright Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP - Apple TV+, Columbia Pictures
By David Mouriquand
Published on Updated
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"The French Don’t Even Like Themselves" You're wrong, Ridley Scott, and here's why.

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The new Ridley Scott film, Napoleon, is out this week in cinemas.

Chronicling the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, the one-time Emperor of France who rose to power after the French Revolution and went on to conquer half of Europe, is a daunting task for any filmmaker. And like with all of Sir Ridley’s output, there’s every reason to both be excited and somewhat trepidatious.

Indeed, the filmmaker’s impressive output is violently hit-and-miss. 

For every Alien, Gladiator and The Martian, there’s a Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year and whatever The Counselor was. Sweet vomiting Hitchcock on a Ferris wheel, that was dreadful.

As for the immensely quotable House of Gucci, it’s a ridiculous masterpiece and no bad word shall be said against it.

It truly could go either way with Scott, and while Napoleon doesn’t fall in the naff category, neither is it an all-out return to form.

The film is an uneven, style over substance historical epic that is necessarily long considering the subject matter (it clocks in at 157 minutes) and features some excellent cannon porn, with engaging combat sequences that don’t skimp on the gore and impressive sound design. However, Bonaparte – while well played by Joaquin Phoenix – remains a mystery throughout, and the always-excellent Vanessa Kirby, who plays Joséphine, is severely underwritten.

It’s a shame, as Scott's fascination with Napoleon goes back to his first film, 1977's The Duellists, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and one could have expected a late-career masterpiece. Still, it remains a solid and at times surprisingly funny tale of outsized man-child ambitions - despite being a bloated spectacle.

However, considering the always outspoken director is something of a grumpy bugger, he wasn’t about to let some criticism fly.

Scott has fired back at French film critics after they published a series of negative reviews. Several high-profile French publications have blasted the film, with French GQ saying it was “deeply clumsy, unnatural and unintentionally funny”, while Le Figaro newspaper likened it to “Barbie and Ken under the Empire”. 

To add some extra fuel to the fire, biographer of Napoleon, Patrice Gueniffey in Le Point magazine, attacked the film as a "very anti-French and very pro-British" rewrite of history.

In an interview with the BBC, Scott retorted: “The French don’t even like themselves.”

Ah. Let’s talk.

Napoleon
NapoleonApple TV+, Columbia Pictures

He could not be more wrong.

It’s quite the contrary, in fact. 

The French do like themselves. A little bit too much, in fact.

The snag is that if you’re going to tackle the life and times of one of France’s most controversial figures, you better come correct for the French.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that every single historical detail should be perfect – this is a work of fiction and not a documentary, and therefore some artistic license is not only allowed, but welcomed. Napoleon is an idiosyncratic retelling that fails to convincingly deliver a satisfying close-up of the main man. No great harm in that.

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As Phoenix previously touched upon in an interview with Empire magazine: “If you want to really understand Napoleon, then you should probably do your own studying and reading. Because if you see this film, it’s this experience told through Ridley’s eyes.”

That is fair.

But maybe try your hardest to get certain – rather easy to nail - details right. Otherwise, you’re giving critics the stick to be beaten with.

For instance, Marie Antoinette’s hair was cropped when she was executed. Small detail, but an easy fix, and that’s a few more critics back on side.

Napoleon wasn’t at Marie Antoinette’s execution. He was actually taking part in the Siege of Toulon at the time – a rather important detail, as that played a key role in forcing troops led by Britain to withdraw. Facts can be interesting.

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Napoleon didn’t target the pyramids in Egypt, and the so-called Battle of the Pyramids was not fought at the base of the Pyramids. It may look cool, but the despot wasn’t about that life.

Napoleon didn’t come from nothing. His father was an aristocrat and was Corsica’s representative in the court of Louis XVI.

Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, was six years older than her despot hubby. As great as Vanessa Kirby always is, maybe this could have called for more accurate casting...

The list of inaccuracies goes on.

Napoleon
NapoleonApple TV+, Columbia Pictures

While Napoleon never purports to be a retelling of the history of France’s most tumultuous period, there is a lack of coherence in the film. No one can fault a director from playing it a bit fast and loose with the details considering it all needs to be condensed into two-hours-plus. But certain minor anachronisms feel like an easy fix, especially when you market your film as a biopic.

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Not that that’s going to bother Sir Ridley too much.

Prior to his French comments, he made headlines during the Napoleon promotion tour when he responded to historian Dan Snow’s TikTok breakdown of the film’s inaccuracies, including Napoleon’s involvement at the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids and how he “never” led a French cavalry charge.

“Get a life,” Scott said. “I tend to be visual above all things, before the written word.”

Scott has prior form here, as he previously told a journalist to “go fuck yourself” after he said 2021’s The Last Duel was “more realistic” than his past films like Robin Hood and Kingdom Of Heaven.

“Sir, fuck you,” Scott said in response. “Fuck you. Thank you very much. Fuck you. Go fuck yourself, sir. Go on.”

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Joaquin Phoenix, left, and Ridley Scott at the UK premiere of Napoleon
Joaquin Phoenix, left, and Ridley Scott at the UK premiere of NapoleonScott Garfitt/Invision/AP

Entertaining though a forthright and grumpy git can be, Scott’s comments on the French show that he hasn’t understood a damn thing about them.

They’re just peeved that the film isn’t historically accurate, and that the French historical figures are speaking with American accents.

They too need to get over it. After all, what is it they say? Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story... That, and these films, no matter how accurate or not, are a great jumping off point for people to get interested in history. No bad thing. 

However, at the tender age of 86, maybe Scott needs to learn a better-late-than-never lesson: Grow thicker skin, especially if you’re doing a historical biopic. Your film isn’t going to resonate with everyone, and critics have a right to their say without being insulted.

That said, we here at Euronews Culture await Sir Ridley with a fresh batch of croissants and a café au lait any time he wants to drop by – just so we can show him that we do love our lives. 

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What's not to love? The cultural life is great; the cheese is greater; don’t get us started about the wine and pastries; the healthcare is far superior to anything in the anglophone world; higher education is affordable; the language is gorgeous; the landscape diverse; the markets glorious; and we’re known for our fashion sense for a reason. 

That's already plenty to be happy about - even if it does mean that we're a little proud (to say the least) and that we get sniffy about American productions butchering a few facts and get pissed off about generalising comments denigrating an entire population. 

Don’t tell us how we feel about ourselves. The French don’t like that. No one does.

Napoleon hits cinemas on 22 November, with a four-hour director’s cut set to arrive on Apple TV+ at a later date.

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