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Joaquin Phoenix meets Waterloo

The actual French definition of “tour de power,” an admirable noun that is widely used in English, translates as “skill of power.”

That’s why I don’t understand. I don’t see why Joaquin Phoenix’s take on Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and frequent movie subject, would inspire anyone to characterize the results as a tour de force of everything, other than a sustained, occasionally laughable indecisiveness.

The same goes for director Ridley Scott’s middling epic “Napoleon.” “Medium” and “epic” aren’t words you want to see together, but there you have it. Napoleon was many things, and Phoenix and his director deliver as many punches as cinematically possible on as many facets of the warrior-tyrant-genius-idiot-lonely heart as possible in two and a half hours with this responsible career highlights film.

Scott’s plan for “Napoleon” to eventually air on Apple TV+ would restore 90 minutes and possibly a battle or three. Will it provide a better experience? Probably. Scott spoke of his disappointment in trimming scenes from Vanessa Kirby’s role as Joséphine de Beauharnais, the ultimately divorced and exiled first wife but Napoleon’s great love until the end. It’s the best thing about the dense blur of a movie. Although Phoenix tries a little this and that as he searches for a way into the script, Kirby brings a human pulse to this oddly impersonal project.

Even in a smaller Ridley Scott film you can count on a certain level of visual intelligence and drive. “Napoleon” falters both. In the Battle of Austerlitz scene, we see the methodical leadership and tactically diabolical outcome of the French army’s cannons targeting an ice-covered lake, sending retreating Russian and Austrian soldiers into a cold, wet grave.

Later in the Napoleonic Wars and in the movie, the extremely talented Napoleon meets the British at Waterloo (no better place for this, of course). Here, director Scott manages scale and tension the old-school way: by taking us a little closer to the strategies and thoughts of rivals Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett, a welcome addition), a larger landscape awaits thousands of viewers. The colliding, dying soldiers and Destiny deal a decisive blow to our anti-hero.

A movie of men, horses, digital blood explosions and practical craftsmanship. All of this is intertwined with Napoleon and Josephine’s courtship (sort of) and marriage (full of psychosexual power plays and a bit of weirdness). Screenwriter David Scarpa’s wilder lines of dialogue are already appearing all over social media; especially Napoleon’s gluttonous declaration: “Fate brought me these lamb chops!” – and laments about his cranky playground English haters: “You think you’re so great because boats!”

I don’t know what “these are jokes, guys” means in French, but… actually, I do, it’s “these are jokes guys“but that’s irrelevant. At times, “Napoleon” goes about it playfully, painting with a broad brush the man’s ambitions and insecurities, both small and large, throughout. But Scott is never particularly humorous, especially in comedies (ironically). Although “Napoleon” isn’t a parody or a comedic dismantling of a legend, its sense of humor is a genuinely ambiguous one, matched by Scott’s frustrating uncertainty about major visual decisions.

The typical 20-second action footage here combines dazzling slow motion, slightly sped-up and frayed quick motion, digital futzing (always another crowd of digital soldiers or rioting villagers or something), plus real people in seemingly real costumes. random shuffling mode. The movie made me miss Scott’s movie 46 years ago, also set during the Napoleonic Wars, with a limited budget: “The Duellists”. So much of this project feels as if no one in particular directed it, and as if some miscast senior actor never figured out how to play this guy.

Phoenix is ​​so thrillingly unpredictable and vital in movies of all kinds, from “Walk the Line” to “Her” to “The Master.” Thus Napoleon’s mumbled commentary during his sleepy moments comes off as a disappointment, and the flat, unaccented rhythm of his spoken word takes us out of period. Only in the occasional outburst—there’s a moment when Phoenix knocks a glass out of the maid’s hand and breaks it, and it’s more notable than most battle scenes—do we feel like we’re getting somewhere.

As for historical inaccuracies: Who cares? Frankly. Who cares? No, Napoleon didn’t actually aim and fire cannonballs at the Great Pyramids of Egypt; no, he did not actually meet with Wellington after his defeat; No, he did not witness Marie Antoinette’s execution. Not important for me. What matters to me is what happened and why. This Bonaparte’s dream. Why did you tell this story? What does this topic say about its time? What is “Napoleon” trying to capture with its filmmaking methods and approach today?

More satisfactory answers may come in the four-hour version. I just know this: Whatever money Everett got paid to smell the phrase “I won’t get wet if I have it” while fumbling with an umbrella before the Battle of Waterloo, it wasn’t enough.

“Napoleon” — 2 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong violence, some gruesome images, sexual content and brief language)

Running time: 2:38

How to watch: Premieres in theaters November 21; The Apple TV+ release date has not been announced yet.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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