Napoleon (film)Ridley Scott
148 Min.  23. 11. 2023
Jeanne du Barry (film)Maïwenn
116 Min.  30. 8. 2023
The Future FutureAdam Thirlwell
Jonathan Cape Aug 202318,99 £ 352 S.

In season four of Succession, Connor marries Willa, the half-hearted playwright and devoted pragmatist, though his father Logan does not attend the wedding, on account of some other business engagement. Logan Roy decides instead to send the couple «Napoleon and Joséphine letters»: an oddly unspecific gift, potentially though not necessarily high-value – it carries a certain ironic undertone. Connor’s trivial obsession with the Corsican emperor is noted in a previous season when he puts in a bid via his antiquities «dealer» for a package of Napoleonica – letters, artefacts and, much to his siblings’ glee, Napoleon’s dried penis, which he dismisses coquettishly as «a curio … a British surgeon snipped it off».

We’re settling into the 21st century, a time of media domination and total hubris in politics. Waystar Royco is the family-run media empire around which the Roy siblings’ conflicts revolve as they each vie to succeed the patriarch Logan as head of the company. Connor is the outsider whose misplaced exceptionalism gives him delusional aspirations, like becoming the next President of the United States. Sure, he’s a goof; but with his occasional bouts of nihilism and a strong sense of entitlement, there’s potential there for another accidental tyrant.

Still, it’s Willa who always interested me. Not least because of her apathy towards her own career, writing – this thing that sets her apart from the rich and disinterested of her own historic period, and to which she is continually escorted back, the deeper she tries to infiltrate the Roy family. Not unlike Joséphine in her relationship to Napoleon, Willa is often reluctant to return Connor’s affections, though she does the bare minimum, preoccupied by a need to secure her place among the ultra-privileged, which would ultimately forego any need for her to return to the precarity of writing.

Now at the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte’s correspondence with his wife Joséphine is a prominent feature in Ridley Scott’s vaguely historical drama Napoleon. Joaquin Phoenix as a beguilingly monotonous Napoleon reads the (English translations of the) letters in a voiceover that couples scenes of long marches across the continent and the quietude of his semi-provisional military camp in Egypt. When the news of Joséphine’s affair with the army officer Hippolyte Charles reaches Napoleon (also by letter), he returns immediately to France to confront her.

«You are wicked and naughty […], as much as you are fickle»

Letters entail not only communication but also action. Indeed, the one-sidedness of Napoleon’s letters, whereby he deplores Joséphine for her lack of replies and comparable passion, tips the balance of power between the couple, showing Napoleon at his most desperate and his most vulnerable. Upon learning of Joséphine’s death from her daughter, one of Napoleon’s first questions pertains to the whereabouts of the letters he’d written to her. An historicising gaze sees the sentimental value of these letters eclipsed by their potential political and future economic value (as luxurious, though vacuous wedding gifts, for example) and so it comes as no surprise when they are reported stolen.

While it may be true that Joséphine, as played by Vanessa Kirby, holds a certain sway over Napoleon, one only has the correspondence-as-voiceover to go by, which functions as both exposition and evidence of the film’s historical authenticity. The letters even do most of the heavy lifting in the portrayal of the relationship, its emotional intricacies and psychological intrigues. Which is to say, the early scenes between Napoleon and Joséphine do little to convince me of the exceptionalism or even urgency of their relationship. Such that by the time Napoleon goes off to Egypt for the Battle of the Pyramids, it seemed fair enough to me that Joséphine would take a lover in his absence. All there is to see by this point is a tepid situationship, a loose connection consisting mostly of whim and convenience. Perhaps this is down to the fourteen-year age gap between Joaquin Phoenix and the younger Vanessa Kirby, a decision which in its Hollywood typicality glosses over the coarser terrain set out by the actual age gap between Napoleon and Joséphine, who was in fact six years his senior. Although both actors play their parts adequately, I couldn’t help but feel that casting a woman in the role of Joséphine whose more mature age could have lent more nuance to her character would have made this film more curious, more comprehensible and ultimately, more radical.

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