The French do not like an Englishman’s rendition of Napoleon.
Or at least, the French critics do not.
Looking grim and moody from under an enormous bicorn hat, Joaquin Phoenix glowers from posters around Paris, promoting the film by Ridley Scott that offers the latest reincarnation of the French hero whose nose — as one reviewer deliciously wrote — still rises in the middle of French political life two centuries after his death.
The critic for the left-wing daily Libération panned the film as not just ugly, but vacuous, positing nothing and “very sure of its inanity.” The review in Le Monde offered that if the director’s vision had one merit, it was “simplicity” — “a montage alternating between Napoleon’s love life and his feats of battle.”
The right-wing Le Figaro took many positions in its breathless coverage, using the moment to pump out a 132-page special-edition magazine on Napoleon, along with more than a dozen articles, including a reader poll and a Napoleon knowledge test. The newspaper’s most memorable take came from Thierry Lentz, the director of the Napoleon Foundation, a charity dedicated to historical research: He considered Phoenix’s version of Napoleon — compared to more than 100 other actors who have played the role — “a bit vulgar, a bit rude, with a voice from elsewhere that doesn’t fit at all.”
All of this was to be expected.
As the French writer Sylvain Tesson once famously said, “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.” How else would you expect a country where the perennial response to “How are you?” is “Not bad” to respond to a historical film about itself?
But to have that film be about a French legend — even one whom many detest — played by an American actor and directed by a British filmmaker?
“This very anti-French and very pro-English film is, however, not very ‘English’ in spirit,” said the historian Patrick Gueniffey, in Le Point magazine, “because the English have never compromised their admiration for their enemy.”
“It’s hard not to see this hasty approach as the historical revenge of Ridley Scott, the Englishman,” assessed the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné. “An Austerlitz of cinema? More like Waterloo.”
Bracing under the waterfall of negative reaction, you begin to wonder whether the criticism reveals more about the French psyche than the nation’s taste in historical cinema.
“When we talk about Napoleon, in fact we are getting at the heart of our principles and our political divisions,” explained Arthur Chevallier, a Napoleon expert who has published five books on the Corsican soldier who seized power after the French Revolution, crowned himself emperor and proceeded to conquer — and later lose — much of Western Europe.
“The common point among all French people is that Napoleon remains a subject that influences our understanding of ourselves, our identity,” Chevallier said.
More than 200 years after his death, the smudge of Napoleon’s fingerprints still liberally decorates the country and its capital: along the streets and metro stations named after his generals and battles; from atop the Arc de Triomphe that he planned; in the gleam of the gold dome of the Invalides, under which his giant marble tomb rises.
Lawyers still follow an updated version of his civil code. Provincial regions are still overseen by prefects — or government administrators — in a system he devised. Every year, high schoolers take the baccalaureate exam that his regime introduced, and citizens are awarded the country’s top honor, which he invented.
Last Sunday, before the film hit theaters here, a French auction house announced that it had sold one of Napoleon’s signature bicorn hats for a record 1.9 million euros, or $2.1 million.
In recent decades, Napoleon’s record for misogyny, imperialism and racism — he reimposed slavery eight years after the revolutionary government abolished it — has come under glaring critical light. But that seems to have simply reinforced the weight of his legacy.
To many, Napoleon is the symbol of a France that has come under assault from what they consider an American import of identity politics and “wokeism.” The latest front page of the weekly far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles declared him “The Anti-Woke Emperor.” (Its reviewer also panned the film: From the first scene, the viewer knows that “historical accuracy will suffer the guillotine,” wrote Laurent Dandrieu.)
In a national poll conducted this week, 74 percent of respondents with an opinion on Napoleon considered his actions beneficial for France.
“You have the impression that when we talk about him, he’s a living politician,” said Chevallier, who has already seen the film twice and counts himself among its few unabashed French fans.
What he liked, he said, was its different take on Napoleon and the revolution that birthed him and modern France. Instead of a regal leader with insatiable energy and ambition, Joaquin Phoenix portrays a regular grasping mortal who is the product of a bloodthirsty, barbaric upheaval — something that some find “very destabilizing,” Chevallier said, but that he considered interesting and instructive, “because you understand why Napoleon inspired such hate” among other European powers at the time.
He predicted that his fellow citizens who were more cinema fans than history buffs would like the film, which opened to the public on Wednesday.
Some 120,000 people went to see it across France that day — a strong opening, but not a blockbuster like “Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,” which drew more than 460,000 on its opening day early this year, according to figures collected by C.B.O. Box Office, a firm that collates French box office data.
Moviegoers streaming out of a theater in the Latin Quarter of Paris on Thursday night were not enthused.
Augustin Ampe, 20, said he was all for demystifying Napoleon, but this was just too much. “Here he looks like a clumsy man focused only on his wife,” said the literature student, breaking for a moment from a fierce debate over the film’s failures with his friends. He preferred the mythical figure offered in the books and poems of Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, he said.
Waiting for her movie date to finish his post-film cigarette, Charline Tartar, a librarian, assessed Phoenix’s rendition as too moany.
“It’s too bad Napoleon looks like a loser,” said Tartar, 27. She thought a French director would have paid more attention to historical accuracy.
“The French,” she added, “are very jealous of their history.”
Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting.