The French Are Not Happy About “Napoleon”

Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon.”Photograph courtesy Apple TV+

Americans are so used to seeing history played by Americans that the oddity of it hardly registers anymore. Charlton Heston was the Spanish El Cid and the Hebrew Egyptian Moses and the Judean Ben-Hur—believe it or not, he won an Oscar for that one—and his Midwestern accents were taken for granted whomever he played and wherever the character was supposed to have lived.

And why not? No one expects the actors in a production of “Julius Caesar” to speak good Latin. Fiction is the premise of all fictions, and that simple truth, along with the (perhaps declining) companion truth that, for the most part, movie stars are made in America, is enough to explain the phenomenon. Indeed, the whole point and rationale—the raison d’être, as we say in English—of the theatrical arts is to extend our circles of compassion through acts of creative empathy: we want people who are unlike the characters they play to inhabit them so that in acts of sympathetic resonance we too expand ourselves. It’s why we love Laurence Olivier’s Shylock, or, for that matter, Russell Crowe’s gladiator.

Yet, when one has something, if no more than a big toe, resting in another culture, the oddity resonates. Though Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon, for the most part ably, in Ridley Scott’s much talked-of new movie of the Emperor’s life and battles, it’s still disconcerting that he says his lines not only in English but more or less with exactly the same accents—and using exactly the same slightly paralyzed set of expressions—with which he inhabited Johnny Cash. The cast of his character remains the cast of his character, which, in classic movie-star manner, Phoenix adjusts but does not significantly vary from role to role; he is no Lon Chaney, nor nearly an Olivier, inventing a new face and voice for each role.

This oddity has not been missed in the French reception to the film. Almost all French commentators italicize the ambiguities of Napoleon’s historical role—was he the reincarnation of Alexander the Great or the sinister precursor of Hitler? Perhaps the sole exception is the far-right polemicist and onetime Presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who contributed a laudatory story to the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles with the cover line “L’empereur anti-woke.” “Woke” has become, however improbably, an omnipresent borrowed word in French polemics, particularly on the anti-American far right. You might suppose that those who believe that America is colonizing French culture would find a French word around which to organize their disdain, but they don’t. They use the American word—disdainfully, but they do. It’s as if, in anti-French polemics, we insisted on condemning their undue sang-froid. Apparently, no one has stopped to consider the power of a culture that forced you to borrow its language to condemn it.

But most of the arguments against “Napoleon” were about language in another way, and more nettled. “The film is not troubled by the fact that these two . . . warring factions speak the same language (English), which never ceases to feel odd,” a film critic at Le Monde wrote. “Directed by a Briton who has long reigned over Hollywood, Napoleon is a film that essentially reminds us that the Empire has changed hands since Waterloo.” (With that slightly gnomic formula, the critic means that Hollywood runs the world as once the French did.) One can, to be sure, only imagine how Americans would feel seeing a wildly expensive and elaborate movie made about the life of Abraham Lincoln with Gérard Depardieu in the lead, and with wartime Washington perfectly realized and Gettysburg thrillingly re-created, but with everyone from bedroom to battlefield muttering and roaring in guttural French and using idiomatic French expressions to summon up the American ones—“Ah, alors!,” “Sacré bleu,” “Monsieur le President,” and so on. Such a film would convey the surreal cultural dislocation, not to mention unintended comedy, that “Napoleon” provokes in native French speakers. This is not so much a vexed issue of cultural appropriation as a more straightforward one of comic incongruity. Though languages do not, in truth, enclose singular domains of meaning, there are still patterns of behavior, ways of addressing the world, acculturated norms of discourse and style, that affect all members of a linguistic practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *