Ridley Scott's long-awaited Napoleon arrives (which premieres in Spain next Friday) enveloped in an exciting pungent smell of gunpowder and controversy. The filmmaker has tried to put the entire life of the Corsican into a film and of course, everything has been a little accelerated (he is introduced to the Archduchess Maria Luisa and in the next scene he is already given the son he had with her; Waterloo is a head-on clash in which there is no fighting for the farm of the Haye Sainte or the Château de Hougoumont and in which the Prussians arrive immediately). And with the haste and the excess of ellipsis, some issues have fallen: such as the entire war in Spain, although it is true that Bonaparte would have agreed to draw a thick veil over "the Spanish ulcer". Despite that and some license such as showing the emperor at the head of cavalry charges sabre in hand in Borodino and Waterloo, where he suffered from hemorrhoids, Napoleon is a great spectacle, with battles, sex, hussars – the director prefers to recreate himself in Hippolyte Charles, Josephine's handsome lover (a risky sportsman) instead of showing the iconic hussar (although he suffered from alopecia), General Antoine de Lasalle, who fell at Wagram and not from his bed)—and even mummies, and cannons, many cannons. The director's Napoleon doesn't put his hand on his bib but his iconic gesture is to cover his ears when cannonading.
Ridley Scott (South Shields, 85), who shows the influence of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon in the film (the candlelight, the music, the care in the costumes), is particularly pleased with the performance of the protagonists, Joaquin Phoenix (in the rôle titre) and Vanessa Kirby (Josefina), despite the fact that some French press has maliciously compared them to Kent and Barbie (for adults, with some cross-legged moments in Fatal Attraction: "If you look down you'll see a surprise you won't forget, general citizen"). Scott's response (British and sir) has been to send all critics, especially the French, to hell. "A film cannot be a history lesson," he said in an interview with this newspaper. Tonight, he and Phoenix will attend a preview at the Prado Museum.
Napoleon and the Theory of the Great Man of History
Question. Isn't it a bit contradictory that Wellington reproaches Napoleon in the film for not being able to resist launching a frontal charge (at Waterloo) and that, instead, he is shown with such a preference to go behind with Josephine?
Answer. Napoleon is a strategist, his greatest virtue is to possess great intuition. And in battle, intuition is everything.
Q. Yes, but I was referring to the shocking and somewhat vaudevillian scenes in which he is shown having sex with Josefina in the rear. Then he will complain about being angry with the French...
A. Ah, like a puppy! (laughs). We decided to do it that way, those scenes, so that it wasn't all military action, battles, and to take away a bit of the significance. With Napoleon there is a tendency to make everything very solemn and boring. We looked for a tone of humour in these sequences, which do not betray what appears in the intimate letters, some of which are very explicit in terms of sex. I'm also very pleased with the scene where he gets under the table and advances on all fours towards Josefina. There the actress, Vanessa Kirby, didn't know what Joaquin Phoenix was going to do, and it came out like that, it went very well! Another sequence in which we introduced this touch of humor was in the coup d'état of the Brumaire, when the deputies fall on him fiercely. There's a lot of violence, but it's also comical. We shot it all in one take, with 8 cameras.
Q. Napoleon had to endure a lot of jokes, it was a golden age for cartoonists (especially those from outside France). Of course, if the English catch intimate letters in which you tell Josefina not to wash, that you are coming...
A. Everybody wants to laugh at politicians, look at America now. You can laugh at everything except Israel, and Ukraine.
Q. The film doesn't seem to quite opt for a vision of Napoleon. "Corsican bully" or generous to the enemy? Abusive—he slaps Josefina in the act of divorce—"or romantic? A rude scoundrel—"Too bad so important a man has no manners," remarks the English ambassador—or a fine intellectual? (a great reader, he was a member of the Institut de France and author of the Civil Code).
A. Napoleon is a Corsican and the Corsicans are very tough. It has an aggressive character and lacks elegance. But I insist again that he was very intuitive, that is his main trait. So is his mother's influence.
Q. His speeches and harangues show that he knew the value of words. "Soldiers of the Grand Armée," he wrote after Austerlitz, "before this day passes and is lost in the ocean of eternity your emperor wants to speak to you."
A. And his letters, reveal a lot about him, many are preserved, there are some to Josephine that are very moving.
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte.KEVIN BAKER
Q. It could be very inspiring, do you identify with that Napoleonic quality that you have in your films moments such as the monologue of tears in the rain by the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner, those of General Maximus in Gladiator or Balian's harangue in Kingdom of Heaven? ("This is your oath, and this so that you will not forget it")?
A. There is strength and beautiful metaphors in Napoleon's texts, he had inspiring moments. As for Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick's original novel [Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] already had very nice dialogue, with a melody, that suggested what needed to be said in the film. I also have a great admiration for the screenwriters. Speaking of Gladiator, I remember that when I said I was going to make a film about Ancient Rome they thought it would be a sword and sandals, a genre peplum. They were wrong."
Q. He's made a lot of historical films.
A. The danger in doing them is that you don't realize that they can't be a history lesson. They're movies. The characters have to dialogue normally. In Napoleon it went very well. I used four cameras to shoot the dialogues and the actors felt very capable of improvising and with a lot of freedom. I warned them to be ready for anything. And so came the scene of Napoleon crawling under the table.
Q. You can see the same fascination with the Napoleonic era, the uniforms, the weapons, as in his first film, the unforgettable The Duelists (1977).
A. The fascination continues. You know, it all comes from Rome.
Q. He says that because he's with Gladiator 2.
A. No, no, Napoleon got all his inspiration from there. The eagles, the magnificence of the equipment, the discipline, the sprit de corps. Also the Germans in World War II, by the way. It's interesting to see everything that started in Rome, in imperial Rome.
Q. Napoleon is a cannon movie.
Q. Of cannons, and their bullets.
Q. Also (laughs). But I was referring to artillery. You have to see how Napoleon's cannons rumble. Tremendous, in battles and also when he fires mercilessly at the French people at the beginning of his career in the Grape Harvest.
Joaquin Phoenix and Ridley Scott during the presentation of 'Napoleon' in Paris.STEPHANIE LECOCQ (REUTERS)
A. Oh, he was a gunner, and that was always noticeable. He knew all about cannons. How to place and shoot them, but also how to melt them. That's what I show he did in the siege of Toulon.
Q. That battle is very shocking, it shows a very human Napoleon, hyperventilating before combat, fighting hand-to-hand and having his horse killed (historical episode) in a brutal scene. In total it shows five battles, Toulon, Pyramids, Austerlitz (taking for granted the legend of the disaster of the Russians and Austrians on the ice), Borodino and Waterloo. What's the secret to delivering a good battle in cinema, you've done so many?
A. Draw it first. I draw and I'm very good at it. I went to art school, I was taught by Lucian Freud, and I had David Hockney as a classmate.
Q. Well, here he competes with another David, Jacques-Louis, and with Gros. I don't know what he is reproached for more, that he makes the French shoot at the Pyramids of Giza (now that we have put an end to the myth that he shot the nose of the Sphinx!) or that the war does not come out of Spain; let's see what Goya will say to him tonight at the Prado.
A. I looked, I lived in Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, a very industrial town that influenced me a lot. There was a big cinema, the Odeon, and I painted the posters. I did one for Stanley Kramer's Pride and Passion, which was about the war with the French, with Cary Grant, Sofia Loren, and Frank Sinatra (as a guerrilla). So you could say that I've already touched on that topic...
Q. That 1957 film that he mentions, precisely about a large cannon, the largest in the world (a kind of canyon of peninsular Navarone), that the guerrillas dragged to tear down the walls of Ávila and help the English, was based on the novel The Gun, by C. S. Forester.
A. I've always loved Forester's stories, especially those of his Nelson Navy captain, Horatio Hornblower.
Q. Wow, the clearing gentleman of the seas! And Sharpe, the British rifleman from Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic novels? The Napoleon sequence in which a sniper pierces his hat at Waterloo feels like an homage.
A. I know him, yes, but I prefer Captain Hornblower!