January 25, 2024

Crown for a Clown

Artemy Magun

Still from Napoleon, dir. Ridley Scott (2023).

Napoleon, a 2023 film by Ridley Scott, received a flurry of reviews in the media, mostly moderate or negative. The journalistic interest exceeded, it seems, the box office returns (which were also moderate, but enough to cover the film’s expenses). I am not going to write yet another review of the film but will instead reflect on the cultural situation of which Napoleon is a symptom. Even if the film’s artistic quality was mediocre, it nevertheless touched on a subject crucial for global history and particularly for the project of the European Union. (Napoleon actually claimed at some point that he was uniting Europe.) Scott’s Napoleon is one of the very few (three or four, depending on how you count them) biopics about Napoleon. The most famous is Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece from 1927, which, unfortunately, blows Scott’s version out of the water. Everyone now talks about Kubrick’s aborted plan to shoot a Napoleon biopic, so that the shadow of Kubrick’s unrealized film haunts Scott’s. All of this sets up epic expectations for the new Napoleon.

The film satisfies some of these, in its sweeping time span and depiction of historic events, particularly the battle scenes, which are as ambitious as they are unintelligible. It is obvious that Scott, as he has confirmed in interviews, meticulously studied Napoleon’s battle plans and tried to reproduce them in spectacular fashion. However, due to the time limitations of commercial film, Scott is the only person who fully comprehends these battle plans, while the audience is left clueless. Even though the audience is thrust into the perspective of the commanding officer, no time is allotted for the commander to at least discuss the plans with his staff, leaving the audience feeling like Stendhal or Tolstoy characters, who were famously disoriented in the midst of these Napoleonic battles. These characters are soldiers or low-level officers, so their disorientation is understandable, but in Scott’s film we—though visibly not Napoleon—feel disoriented even though we share the commander’s perspective.

In Napoleon, there is a deep irony in the depiction of the central character. He is myopic when we look from his perspective, but he is no less problematic when we look at him. The actor Joaquin Phoenix, who successfully played the clinically mad Joker from the Batman universe, here offers a strangely unfit performance as Napoleon Bonaparte. The actor is forty-nine years old but looks much older (“Little attempt is made to de-age Phoenix,” wrote The Guardian) as he plays a man famous for his youth who ended his career at the age of forty-five.1 Phoenix’s Napoleon practically looks like a father figure to the charming Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby, who is thirty-five), when in fact the age difference was the reverse, with Josephine considerably older than Napoleon. (She was thirty-two when they met.) Quantity makes quality here I’m afraid. Our aging culture can no longer appreciate the messianic authority of youth, particularly with the US mired in gerontocracy.

As Agnès Poirier writes in her review of the film, Scott “cast a worn-out and rotund-looking 49-year-old, Joaquin Phoenix, to play a 24-year-old dashing young officer, and gave the great actor only two moods to play: brutal and grotesque.”2 Indeed, his mask is rather rigid, and his gestures wooden. The irony is that the film is completely centered on the person of Napoleon. Although Josephine plays an important role, even she remains a secondary character. The impressive historical reconstruction of costumes, interiors, and settings serves only to underline the vacuity at center stage, perpetually occupied by Phoenix.

Scott’s epic reminds you of those cardboard figures with a hole where the face should be, so you can insert your own face and be photographed as Princess Diana or Alexander Hamilton. The frame is convincing but the face offers only a banal familiarity.

Scott’s depiction of Napoleon is a symptom of larger forces that merit serious consideration. Among the paradoxes of our historical period is a personalization of culture and politics, which coincides with a no less marked concern for democracy as an unheroic regime of collective rule characterized by anonymous bureaucratic governance. There is a growing political science literature on personalization, which expresses concern for the decay of party politics.3 But in my view the problem is structural. While political representation, the regime of private property, and a broader cultural individualism emphasize personality, there is also a tendency towards anonymity, legality, and equality that emerges from the need to tie individuals together.

From this paradox there follows two symmetrical dysfunctions: (1) negative personalism as an obsessive fear of “authoritarianism” (Trump is the prime example), and (2) corruption as personal enrichment pursued in spite of and against anonymous public institutions (embodied in Russian state officials, with Putin as their highest representative). There is a certain embarrassment when the cult of celebrity, which is totally legitimate and expected in the realm of, say, film and pop music, and even in American academia, is transferred to the realm of politics. However, since the relatively early times of Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, even democracy has been understood as a competition between exceptional “leaders.” Modern liberal constitutions, even if they prescribe a division of power, invariably make one person the bearer of popular sovereignty and the supreme commander of the military. Cases of truly collective leadership, ironically, are found in contemporary illiberal regimes, such as military “juntas” and “politburos.”

The tendency I am discussing here emerged in the nineteenth century with Bonaparte and the long-lasting Napoleonic myth. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century there was a broad consensus, endorsed by the likes of Bruno Bauer, Theodor Mommsen, Wilhelm Roscher, Heinrich von Treitschke, and Friedrich Nietzsche, that Europe has entered an age of revived “Caesarism.”4 The twentieth-century notion of “imperialism” originated from this same context. Marx, who also noticed this tendency, tried to explain it away by pointing to a structural power vacuum produced by an impasse in the class struggle. Some Marxists, including most notably August Thalheimer, used Marx’s Bonapartism theory to explain twentieth-century fascism. I do not think the Marxist theory is entirely successful: time has proved the tenacity of great personalities as a political factor, across political regimes and class constellations.

However, Marx rightly identifies a mismatch: a Bonapartist leader is a mock king, a kind of “joker” (to refer back to Joaquin Phoenix), playing his role in a fundamentally impersonal regime traversed by an internal cleavage, due to the class character of industrial society. There is thus a dialectical relationship between anonymity and personalism in modern society and politics. Adorno probably comes closest to the truth when he notes that Hegel’s defense of a nominal sovereign in the bureaucratic state marked by the tension between family and civil society was actually well-grounded, but needed a small correction. As Adorno writes, Hegel rightly described the birth of a Bonapartist authoritarian state under the guise of Prussian monarchy but mistook it for an ideal order. In reality it leads to a nightmare:

Hegel’s doctrine of the state and his conception of the fulfilment of absolute spirit in the state would be completely true if only it were presented to us specifically as a negative theory—that is, if it effectively attempted to show that civil society at its end, in order to preserve itself as such, necessarily reveals a tendency towards fascism and the totalitarian state, and that a civil society which remained faithful to its own system ad infinitum cannot actually be envisaged.5

But Hegel defended this model because he felt that monarchy, with its principle of representation, was a way to embody the inherently modern principle of free subjectivity in the midst of political institutions that blatantly contradict it. There is a reason for the Bonapartist model to emerge, but it keeps reproducing a caricature of itself: hence the tendency, so notable in Marx and Victor Hugo, to oppose the charismatic rule of Napoleon I to the comic sham of “Napoleon le Petit” (Napoleon III). The numerous attempts to deride Napoleon I himself as a clown pretending to drive a spontaneously flowing movement (the most famous of these being that of Tolstoy) show, however, that charlatanism was built into the system from the very start. There is a sublime messianic and heroic element haunting late modernity that keeps on making us laugh at attempts to embody it. By casting Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, Scott unconsciously gestures to this fundamental tendency of political modernity. This Phoenix is a caricature of a Bonapartist leader yet to come, in the same way that Scott’s film is a caricature of the nonexistent Kubrick film.

We should not laugh prematurely, however. Democratic constitutions create an obvious temptation towards Bonapartist usurpation. The constitutional impediments and checks that prevent someone from grabbing full power create subconscious incentives to bypass them, for the leader who enjoys sovereignty for the short period of four to twelve years. The case of post-Soviet authoritarian “presidents” illustrates this clearly: most of them have successfully transgressed the clauses that are supposed to limit their terms in power, but this leaves a hint of illegitimacy that makes them perpetually nervous. There is a personalistic political unconscious that manifests itself in the private sphere, while it is made reluctantly taboo in the public one. In an era when liberal democracy is losing hegemony and appeal, a re-legitimation of modernist Caesarist monarchy, Bonaparte style, is quite possible, and may even seem beneficial in the short-term if it can put an end to the grand anxiety of turbulent international politics. However, in the long-term a macabre bacchanal, of the kind found in Vladimir Sorokin‘s novels, will most likely ensue out of these coronations.6 It will be fortunate if God at least saves us from the revival of the dormant British monarchy … The only rational antidote to the likely and wild scenario of re-coronation is a reconstitution of the world under the premises of a truly federalist and democratic constitution where leadership is collective and the rotation of power unconditional.7


Wendy Ide, “Napoleon Review: Ridley Scott’s Sturdy Epic Only Fully Comes Alive on the Battlefield,” The Guardian, November 19, 2023 .


Agnès Poirier, “Like the Rest of France, I Couldn’t Wait For Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. Then I Actually Saw It,” The Guardian, November 24, 2023 .


See, for example, Personalization of Politics and Electoral Change, ed. Diego Garcia (Palgrave 2014); Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, “The Global Rise of Personalized Politics: It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore,” Washington Quarterly 40, no. 1 (2017); Gideon Rahat and Ofer Kenig, From Party Politics to Personalized Politics?: Party Change and Political Personalization in Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2018); Amanda Bittner, “The Personalization of Politics in Anglo-American Democracies,” Frontiers in Political Science, no. 3 (2021).


Peter Baehr, Caesarism, Charisma, and Fate (Transaction Publishers, 2008); Peter Baehr and Melvin Richter, Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Theodor Adorno, Introduction to Dialectics (Polity, 2017), 143.


See, for example, Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik, trans. Jamey Gambrell (2006; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).


See Artemy Magun, “Re-envisioning the Russian Constitution: Toward a Constitutional Project by the Institute for Global Reconstitution (IGREC),” December 2023 .

Political Theory, Authoritarianism, History, Europe

Artemy Magun is a philosopher and member of the Institute for Global Reconstitution. He is the author of Negative Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2013).


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