Napoleon and Saltburn: Two Films That Trolled Us (to varying success)

Over the weekend of American Thanksgiving, audiences saw Napoleon, but it was not the Ridley Scott experience they anticipated. You usually know what you’re getting with Scott, the director behind many large-scale epics and historical pieces, like Gladiator and The Last Duel, but this picture was different. It begins as expected, introducing the French Revolution with a few preface quotes and a dread-inducing shot of Marie Antoinette’s trip to the guillotine. Then, the camera scans the frenzied crowd of onlookers, eventually settling on France’s future ruler, Napoleon, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The first real test of Napoleon’s rise to power is quickly paced, taut, and a beauty to realize. Despite the scarcity of movies for adults lately, Napoleon looks the part. Dads everywhere were ready to rejoice!

But then we meet Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).

As soon as Napoleon clasps hands with Josephine, Scott’s true intentions reveal themselves. This film isn’t the “great man” biopic people expected; it’s the anti-great man narrative. Perhaps we should’ve known better. A film about an infamous French ruler made by a stodgy Brit practically begs for this treatment. That’s not to say that Scott doesn’t give the film his all visually. The Battle of Austerlitz is a sight to behold. Waterloo is riveting. Even the dinner scenes are worth feasting over. Thanks to the lensing from cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, flawless production design by Arthur Max, and the costume design by David Crossman and Janty Yates, Napoleon never looks less than the $200 million picture that Apple paid for. Turning Napoleon’s reign into a satirical deconstruction of leaders begins and ends with Phoenix’s portrayal. He throws tantrums, he’s childish, and he embellishes his military record around other leaders.

In short, he’s a buffoon.

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One of the first moments that Napoleon gives audience pause is after Napoleon returns from a successful military campaign. He sets upon Josephine in their marital chambers. She protests she’s “just set [her] hair,” but his intent is clear. Yet this is no ordinary romance scene, as Napoleon furiously humps at a very bored Josephine. In seconds, it’s all over. If not for the range of Kirby’s performance as the jewel of Napoleon’s eye and heart, the film would fall flat. The intensity Kirby conveys with only her eyes as she stares across the room sets Phoenix still. The way she transitions from desperation to wounded rage to complete calm routinely steals the drama from her titular scene partner. She is the star of the film. And her absence in the third act is noticeable.

The assumption of a Ridley Scott-directed Napoleon is that it would exhaustively cover his military record and the tumultuousness of his rule. Whether one expects the majority of the film to be a bedroom farce instead of war on the battlefield largely dictates one’s enjoyment of the film. What Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa offer is Napoleon’s marriage as a microcosm of his reign. Unable to control his wife, it’s not difficult to see why the tyrannical general couldn’t keep anyone under his thumb. In his insecurity, he rages against the world. Phoenix, reuniting with Scott after Gladiator two decades afo, places a great deal of trust in the director, making a fool of himself regularly. He tolerates Josephine’s infidelity, but it makes him irrational, casting her further away from him.

His time as Emperor is no different. He bellows and rages, but he also tells an English diplomat, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” Scott can’t find the man on the field, so this is his emotional centre. This is how the director can make Napoleon human. But the juvenile humour in depicting so much of Napoleon in the bedroom means the core relationship is never developed. He merely splashes some skits around his expensive setpieces. Scott never commits to making a satire, placing Napoleon in a cinematic no man’s land.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, by contrast, takes a recognizable figure and makes him alien. Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a scholarship student in a land of prestige, doesn’t belong. Out of place at Oxford, Oliver lingers close to the young, attractive groups of old money long enough for them to notice, then he quickly shuffles away. But the pull of Felix (Jacob Elordi) proves irresistible to Oliver, and the odd pairing blossoms into friendship. Oliver, initially shy, wises fast to the obstacles in the way of staying in Felix’s inner circle. Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), the chief gatekeeper, dispenses cruelty whenever possible, but having tasted the intoxicating lifestyle of wealth, Oliver won’t return to humble roots. Like Napoleon, Oliver has a bottomless pit of ambition.

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After tragedy strikes, Felix entreats Oliver to stay at Saltburn, the lavish Catton family estate. Where we meet the triumvirate of Lord and Lady Catton (Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike) and their own hanger-on, played by Carey Mulligan. It appears the children come by their conception of friendship honestly. As fun as Grant and Pike are, the film slows considerably in the second act: we watch Felix and his family frivol away the summer while Oliver does his best to blend in, failing regularly. But cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the acute angles of Saltburn and of Oliver studiously examining his reflection. Specifically, what it reveals and needs to say to keep him at Saltburn. 

Fennell has a flair for wicked dialogue, using conversational scenes to upend each character’s place on the ladder. Only Felix doesn’t move. In shots, one constantly watches to see who is presented higher in the frame. Who currently holds the upper hand? The introduction of Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) reconfigures the film considerably. Everything that follows escalates into the type of pulpy thriller one don’t see much in theatres. But viewers might be inclined to say this could’ve just been on HBO.

While Fennell loves turning the audience’s expectations against them. I fear that the similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Parasite clued audiences to the eventual twist. The shocking turn in Promising Young Woman was essential to the film’s success, yet by the time a monologue carefully resets one’s understanding of the events in Saltburn, audiences already know what transpired. As much of a chameleon as Keoghan is, the script’s structure can’t flex. For a film so considered in every other aspect, it fails to pick up that everyone sees the writing on the wall.

These two films are marked by lead performances that deliberately provoke audiences in different ways, but the crowds walking into Napoleon are more likely to be taken aback by what they see. Anyone seeing Saltburn, by contrast, is expecting a swerve. But what surprises Fennell doesn’t get from her script, she earns in sheer repulsion. Keoghan goes wherever his director asks, creating a brave performance. One marked by showmanship and calibrated turns to make people take notice of him, if they hadn’t already. After watching him, you may never put your hands close to your mouth again. You’ll certainly never look at a bathtub drain the same way.

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Scott promised us another Gladiator. Fennell tried to lure in viewers with a more lurid Downton Abbey. The films we got instead were what the filmmakers intended, but not what they could market to put butts in seats. I suppose Sony and Amazon/MGM are the ones trolling us here, selling whatever trailer it takes to get people in the theatre. And if the content onscreen doesn’t satisfy, Scott and Fennell are more than happy to provoke their viewers. Provocation can’t be the only thing you offer, though–not this close to awards season.

 

Saltburn and Napoleon opened in theatres November 22.

Napoleon will stream on Apple TV Plus at a later date.



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