It’s fair to say that the Napoleon movie hasn’t won many fans in France. While critics in the US and the UK have praised Ridley Scott’s lavish biopic of the tyrannical leader, reviewers in Napoleon’s homeland have been a lot less charitable, including at least one comparison between the supposedly weighty drama and the frothy comedy of Barbie.
Napoleon has, to be fair, polarized critics more than most new movies this year, with its Rotten Tomatoes approval score currently sat at 62%. However, the response in France has been poisonous. Scott wanted to renew the spirit of Gladiator with another of the best Joaquin Phoenix movies, but France hasn’t received it gladly.
Most notably, Le Figaro damningly stated the film could be called “Barbie and Ken under the Empire”. Now we think Barbie is one of the best movies of 2023, as we explained in our Barbie review, but it’s rather more lightweight than Scott was aiming for. When your goal is to make one of the best drama movies ever about an iconic historical figure, the last thing you want is to be compared to a candy-colored comedy.
And it’s not just that single review that has damned Napoleon in the 19th century ruler’s country of birth. The magazine Télérama called Scott’s movie “an aberration”, while Libération said that the film “offers no point of view, neither on the man nor on the myth”. Writing in The Guardian, French journalist Agnès Poirier called this Napoleon story “inept, crass, and boring”. Ouch.
This all feels a bit harsh, as far as we’re concerned, but we can understand why French audiences might feel a bit more ownership over this story than a British filmmaker and a selection of American studios. Historians started correcting the Napoleon movie almost immediately and, for some French critics, there are too many historical missteps.
Scott has been typically grumpy in his response to French criticism of his Napoleon biopic. The famously no-nonsense director has rubbished historical accuracy questions on his press tour and told the BBC that “the French don’t even like themselves” when presented with the negative reviews.
Despite all of this, French audiences have flocked to the cinema to see Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the emperor for themselves. The movie sold 120,000 tickets on its opening day and France currently accounts for a third of the film’s box office total outside of the USA, according to Variety.
So whatever the critics think, Scott won’t be too worried once he sees the bottom line. Maybe he has the license to be a bit grumpy.
For more on Napoleon, why Ridley Scott cut a gross real-life detail from the movie and learn the hilarious reason behind Ridley Scott casting Joaquin Phoenix. As for Scott’s next movie, he’s sticking with history because he’s got the Gladiator 2 release date ahead of him.