With the shorter days and early darkness of winter, the screening of Napoleon began as an afternoon matinee and ended as night fell. It is a long film, spanning years of turmoil and combat in the early years of the 19th century.
The “Reign of Terror” had finally come to an end and the new “rock star” of the French people, Napoleon Bonaparte, emerged to become both emperor and brutal general. Estimates of three million dead as the result of his various campaigns appear on the screen as Bonaparte dies … and the film slides into darkness. What was the price of victory? What limitless arrogance.
Ridley Scott, the brilliant director responsible for Gladiator, Alien, The Martian and a list of other major films, selected Joaquin Phoenix to become Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby to embody the love of his life, Josephine. He sets their tumultuous love affair at the center of this historical fantasia, surrounding their intense conversations with battle sequences that are simply staggering in their portrayal.
There have been a tsunami of critiques and reviews about the film … and this is not one of them. For the moment, allow us to use the film as a springboard and our reaction to the film and its tragically flawed central character as merely the backdrop of some musings about, of all things, the New Year.
Imitations and the ego
It was Oscar Wilde who insightfully noted that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Watching, absorbing Scott’s depiction of Napoleon realized by Phoenix, we wonder if a more accurate rendering of the cycle would be life imitates art imitates life imitates art … and on and on. Once on the merry-go-round, we never seem to be able to dismount.
Exploring the mind of an individual who would willingly sacrifice three million souls on the altar of his own ego is a tall order. In the end, emerging from the theater into the early evening darkness, the effect is almost numbing. Why did no one stop him?
Actually, they tried.
Exile. Driven by ego.
And therein, in the heart of the retelling, is the ember that will simply not be extinguished. After the crushing, brutal disgrace of a campaign in Russia that left 80 percent of his army dead, Napoleon was hustled off to Elba to live in exile. And there he lived comfortably, until driven by his own ego, he decided to return to France to see Josephine.
He had lost. He had been banished. He had been defeated. He had been told never to return to mainland France. And yet, there he was with a small group of followers, moving back toward Paris, only to be stopped by an entire French legion that managed, in almost irrational behavior, to put down their weapons, side with Napoleon and begin what would end up as the march to Waterloo.
How could one individual so hypnotize the masses that with full knowledge of the pain, the suffering and the slaughter he had caused, they decided to side with him?
We came across a description of a fallen leader – not Napoleon – that seemed to provide a characterization that is truly fitting. British writer Nate White offered this summary, “he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour, and no grace.”
Napoleon hoodwinked the French army into fighting the British at Waterloo and lost, miserably. His second banishment, this time to the small, remote island of Saint Helena, would be his last.
Is there a New Year’s resolution in all of this? As we unlock the car, fire it up, and drive toward home, are there resolves within us that can make sure we do not march to our own Waterloo? Can the relentless cycle of art and life imitating each other be adjusted, if ever so slightly, that the wheel still spinning takes us in a different direction?
These are simply some whispers of ideas to share over the “early bird special” on a chilly January evening. •