by Victoria Alexander
Napoleon was a weepy, masochist, a so-so general who was forced to be named emperor. He loved only one woman and cried when he divorced her. He wanted Josephine instead of an heir for the Bonaparte dynasty. France will not forgive Ridley Scott for the insult.
Ridley Scott’s extravagant, massive production NAPOLEON begins with Marie Antoinette’s (Catherine Walker) beheading. Her white hair was not roughly chopped, as was the custom.
Beheading by guillotine was so common that for women subjected to this public death, the hair “style” was called the “coiffure à la victime.” Beheadings were big crowd pleasers. This final act shame was done by the executor right before the walk to the block. Marie Antoinette, heralded and cursed for her outrageous costumes, would have had her hair cut and arranged beforehand by her attendants. She had months to prepare after her husband met his end. Having her hair quickly chopped by the executor would have been for her far worse than the beheading!*
When Napoleon first sees Josephine, her hair has been badly chopped. She was so close to death by guillotine that she had been prepared so her neck could be easily placed on the block.
The French Revolution had finally deposed of the legendary monarchy. The imprisoned king, Louis XVI, believed the way to avoid his fate at the guillotine was to negotiate with the revolutionaries. He failed. But Queen Marie Antoinette refused, insisting “mon métier est d’être royaliste.”
I am going to bypass the historical or non-historical recreations of the bloody battles and the route Napoleon took claiming the leadership, then throne, of France. I am going to focus on Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, which is at the center of the film.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa consciously present Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) with a complicated duality: great general and masochistic lover.
Here is a man who, at his coronation as Emperor of France, crowned himself! He then crowned his wife Josephine as Empress of France.
Apparently, bringing France back to a monarchy, was not that difficult. Napoleon was not a ruthless, cruel politician. Scott/Scarpa refuse to accept how dominant he was. He cries bitterly when forced to have a male heir! He sobs signing the divorce papers! If he stayed married to Josephine, who could not provide him with an heir, he would be a one-time emperor, not the founder of the Bonaparte dynasty.
His demand to cement his place in France’s history meant he refused the title king. He was crowned Emperor Napoleon.
Scott insists that Napoleon is nothing without Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). His letters to Josephine are sensual masterpieces and, at the time, flowery language of desire was intentional and proof of an aristocrat’s education. Do you think the French peasants had the time and education to write letters? Without being in someone’s company, there were no other means of promoting sexual arousal. It is like the “female centered” popularity of soft pornographic literature or erotic scenes in movies and series (see FELLOW TRAVELERS!) Even writing those letters must have excited Napoleon. He had to imagine those sexual things before writing them down. Then giving it away to travel thousands of miles to Josephine would have also thrilled him. The fear of his letters falling into enemy hands would have also added another dimension of heightened thrill.
Yet, Scott allows his current-day audiences to see Napoleon’s passionate, erotic letters as over-blown infatuation with an unlikely temptress who, considering the era, was definitely long in the tooth with a well-known sexual history. In Napoleon’s France, Josephine would have been seen as an old lady. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 39 years. Josephine was 32 years old with two children when she met Napoleon. He was 28.
Josephine should be praised for evaluating Napoleon’s psychological weakness and exploiting it. Cleverly, Josephine did not give Napoleon the honor and respect he was widely given. Josephine was an aristocrat. Napoleon was not. We know this because she boldly takes lovers when he is on campaigns and does not respond to his daily, pleading letters. She brilliantly toyed with him.
Many of his authentic letters to Josephine, narrated by Phoenix, suggests the real reason for his obsession with his wife. He says in a letter that she is the only woman that can please him.
What does that exactly mean? Did the already sexually sophisticated Josephine provide a service to Napoleon no innocent, convent-raised royal virgin would be familiar with?
One of Napoleon’s famous quotes denies the Scott/Scarpa presentation. Obviously, in this statement, he forgot all about his singular love for Josephine.
“Love is not for me,” Napoleon dismissively claimed. “I am not as other men.”
According to my research, the director and screenwriter have drawn a radical different Napoleon than history has presented. Historians state he had 21 confirmed mistresses. There were also persistent rumors that existed about his relationship to his stepdaughter, Hortense de Beauharnais and his own sister, Pauline Bonaparte, who it was said loved him more than her lovers.
All over France it was whispered that Napoleon was occasionally impotent. At some dinner tables an acceptable topic of discussion was the exceptionally modest amount of Napoleon’s ejaculated semen and the size of his penis, disproportionate even to his diminutive stature.
“Has he not seduced his own sisters?” Josephine genuinely gave credence to the rumors that Napoleon had slept with his equally nymphomanic sister Pauline, and his step-daughter, the sensuous Hortense de Beauharnais, because, as emperor, he considered ‘himself licensed to satisfy every fantasy.’”
Historical accounts record that Josephine was humiliated by the frequency of Napoleon’s sexual conquests. He flaunted them ignoring Josephine’s feelings.
NAPOLEON offers us an emperor who was not happy with his victories, the power, his place in history, and his desire for a dynasty. Only Josephine made him happy. He presents his newborn son to Josephine for her approval. Mommy, look! I did good!T he battle scenes, costumes, the production are brilliant. However, Phoenix has decided to besmirch the glory of Napoleon.
He’s a sullen, miserable man who is under the thumbs of his ever-present mother and his sly, domineering wife.
Visit Napoleon’s tomb, Dôme des Invalides, in Paris. See the tribute the massive structure presents. The French do not see Napoleon as Scott does: as a pussy-whipped, cry-baby self-created emperor who might have had some so-so victories and was a depressed, discontented bore.
*Consider this: After the monarchy was abolished, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, their children were housed in the Temple’s Small Tower, where they had access to some of the luxuries they were accustomed to — fine food and wine, new clothes, clean sheets, and books to read. The queen even had one of her beloved dogs in her rooms. When they moved once again to the Temple’s Great Tower, their living conditions were still agreeable; their rooms had a flushing toilet and wallpaper, and their food was served on silver. They had their servants.
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