The Big Picture
- Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship was a complex mix of passion and diplomacy, shaped by their personal traumas and the political climate of the time.
- Apart from Josephine, Napoleon had famous relationships with Countess Maria Walewska and later married Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria.
- Napoleon’s rule reflected both the ideals and betrayals of the French Revolution, as he consolidated power, established alliances, and enforced the Napoleonic Code, ultimately shaping Europe’s present-day political landscape.
Whenever a movie about a relevant historical personality is released, there’s always a debate about how historically accurate it is, and it’s not different with the newly-arrived Napoleon. Ridley Scott‘s historical epic has been rattling cages in this arena as soon as trailers started dropping with a clear focus on Napoleon’s (Joaquin Phoenix) rise from a lowly soldier to Emperor of France and his relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). The truth about movies like Napoleon is that they just can’t be perfectly accurate. Napoleon himself was such a divisive and multifaceted figure, you just can’t contemplate it all and get everything right in a feature film. But, since learning about history is as fun as learning the lore of any major pop culture franchise for us history buffs, let’s take a look and see what’s what.
An epic that details the checkered rise and fall of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his wife, Josephine.
- Release Date
- November 22, 2023
- Ridley Scott
- Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier
- Main Genre
- Biopic, Drama
Napoleon and Josephine’s Relationship Fluctuated Between Passion and Diplomacy
Back in 2021, when Apple landed the rights to Napoleon, Ridley Scott was already giving some insight into how he views Napoleon’s and Josephine’s relationship. “He conquered the world to try to win her love, and when he couldn’t, he conquered it to destroy her and destroyed himself in the process,” he said then, giving epic contours to a story that seemed to be much more layered than that – as every relationship is. Given how big Napoleon would become and how much he relied on Josephine, naturally, the tales about them got bigger and bigger over the centuries.
Josephine’s story before meeting Napoleon was rather tragic, which explains most of her behavior after they married. Her first husband had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror (one of the darkest stages of the French Revolution), and she had been jailed herself. Nowadays, it’s easy to imagine the trauma that must have weighed on her afterward, being a widowed mother of two in one of history’s most turbulent eras. This is reflected in Josephine’s lifestyle afterward, with many affairs being a way of providing some security for her and her children. When she met Napoleon at a society dinner in 1795, it was said that she was the mistress of his mentor, Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim), who facilitated the two of them getting together.
Meanwhile, Napoleon was already an up-and-coming military officer. His close relationship with Barras, who was one of the members of the Directory (France’s governing body at that moment of the Revolution), provided him with insight into power and governance and also led him to Josephine. But while he was confident in military matters, in personal ones he was a disaster. He was six years younger than her, with lots of insecurities and barely any sexual experience, so she provided everything he lacked. For her, on the other hand, he provided the security she needed.
He left for Italy two days after their wedding. Registers of their letters at the time are passionate on Napoleon’s part, but rather distant on Josephine’s, who had already taken a lover. But it appears that, although it took some time, he gradually started seeing their relationship as necessary. He needed a family to consolidate his political status after rising to power as First Consul some years later, and Josephine was good at diplomacy, as he famously put it: “I win battles, but Josephine wins hearts.” But the pressure for them to produce an heir hit an all-time high after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, and was the main reason for their divorce. They kept an amicable and respectful relationship afterward, and he still confided in her, which contributed to her status as his “one true love.”
Napoleon Had Two Other Famous Relationships
Apart from Josephine, Napoleon had two other famous relationships. At the time, France had been the subject of many military campaigns plotted by the other great powers in Europe. Fearing social emancipation like the one seen in the French Revolution, those countries formed “coalitions” (led mostly by England) to fight against France. The War of the Third Coalition saw Napoleon lead his Grande Armée into Eastern Europe in the mid-1800s, and, in 1805, the Battle of Austerlitz took place in current-day Czechia (the one with the frozen pond in the first trailer), fought against Russia and Austria. No surprise, Napoleon beat the Third Coalition and kept moving until he reached Poland, where he met Countess Maria Walewska.
Poland was an extremely delicate case at the time. Polish ethnicity was scattered around Eastern Europe, with most being in Prussia-occupied territories, but there wasn’t a Polish state. That’s the context of his affair with Walewska, a Polish nationalist. Her affair with Napoleon (he would only divorce Josephine in 1810) has always been heavily romanticized, like in the classic film Conquest, with Greta Garbo as Walewska (both in real life and the movie, Walewska is believed to have carried Napoleon’s first child, for example, although the baby was never recognized as such). Nowadays, it’s mostly believed that when Napoleon arrived he saw the advantages of having a client state on the other side of Prussia (another frequent coalition member) and began working with that in mind. Walewska followed him back to France and eventually married one of his officers.
Under Walewska’s influence or not, Napoleon did create a Polish state, the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw, one of the predecessors of modern-day Poland. After his campaign against Russia failed in 1812 (beaten by the Russian winter), though, the country was occupied by both Prussia from the West and Russia from the East. Nationalism among the Poles remained strong, although the country’s configuration shifted several times and an independent state would only be established again after World War I. It was Napoleon’s measures, though, that helped consolidate Poland as a buffer between two of the great powers in Europe, Prussia (and later Germany) and Russia.
How Did Napoleon Shape Europe Today?
Napoleon is not an easy figure to make sense of. His rise to power is seen by some as a continuation of the French Revolution, while others argue that his actions betrayed most of the Revolution’s achievements – and both are correct in some ways. He wouldn’t have risen to power were he not an officer during the Revolution, and the instability of that time allowed him to seize control to consolidate and even take the ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” beyond the borders of France. But he also crowned himself Emperor (greater than a king, mind you) not even a decade after the last king of France had been guillotined.
Another contradictory aspect of Napoleon’s rule that ends up being an argument in favor of him betraying the revolutionary ideals is that, when he actually became one of the most powerful players in European politics, he gave in to the old ways of establishing alliances between noble houses. In 1809, the War of the Fifth Coalition broke out and France beat Austria again, with one of the outcomes being Napoleon’s marriage to Marie Louise (Anna Mawn), daughter of Austrian Emperor Francis II. Austria was one of Napoleon’s fiercest enemies, ruled by one of the oldest and most traditional noble houses in Europe, the Habsburgs. There were strategic reasons, of course, like trying to broker lasting peace in Europe after decades of non-stop conflict, but, ultimately, he married into nobility instead of abolishing it as the Revolution originally intended.
Still, Napoleon did a lot to follow revolutionary ideals during his reign, too. He enforced the Napoleonic Code upon the nations that now comprised his empire, marking the first time most of Europe was really under the rule of law and not the whims of the local lord. But even that had lasting consequences, too, as it brought some degree of emancipation to the peoples of Europe. Nationalism was on the rise, too. Napoleon may have conquered most of Europe, but, outside of France, people didn’t necessarily identify as French. On the one hand, this helped the idea of national identity to spread and begin creating the countries we know today, but, on the other hand, paved the way for nationalism to clash with other doctrines such as liberalism and socialism decades later and, again, laying the foundations for two worldwide conflicts nearly a century later.
Capturing all this in the small window of a feature film is impossible. Napoleon’s impact goes way beyond “conquering everything,” and his motivations were much bigger than just Josephine, as Ridley Scott may claim. A movie about someone as multifaceted and full of contradictions as Napoleon could never grasp the whole picture and is merely an artistic expression of someone else. The true nature of Napoleon’s impact can’t be depicted, because we are still experiencing it.
Napoleon arrives in theaters on November 22.
Get tickets here
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