While promoting Napoléon , his twenty-eighth feature film, Ridley Scott has established his headquarters at the Bristol, the most British of Parisian palaces. Don’t count on him, however, to revive Perfidious Albion’s luster. At almost 86 years old, the English filmmaker, with a scraggly beard and protruding words, takes care of his appearance as an old hand, a survivor of the Hollywood ruins.
Tyrant or liberator, fine strategist or overwhelmed by events, strong or vulnerable: who was, ultimately, Napoleon?
He was all of these at once: orange, blue, green, red… A real kaleidoscope. Its power of attraction is largely due to this ambiguity. I note one constant, however: his admirable intuition. He flaunted it during the siege of Toulon in 1793, during which he defeated the English. From then on, he will trust this inner voice like a compass.
A musical theme punctuates my film: it sounds like the voice of a shepherd comforting his sheep at night – a rough voice, like mine at the moment. The Corsicans have a reputation for being aggressive. Was Napoleon a mafioso? No. But he couldn’t stand the imbeciles who ruled and sacked France.
Why do you give such a poor image of your compatriots?
In the film, the English are either cold or stupid. It was time to make the French glamorous! Napoleon was furious because he only controlled the land, not the sea. “You think yourselves superior just because you have boats! », he says to the English ambassador. The line was not in the script, Joaquin Phoenix improvised it. Napoleon shaped his legend. Over time, he began to believe his own image, his own advertising.
Do you come full circle with “The Duellists” (1977)?
Your first film always stays with you. I celebrated my fortieth birthday on the set of The Duellists . I started in advertising, I was successful, I had to move into directing before I got too old for Hollywood.
I found a short story by Joseph Conrad [ The Duel , 1908, translated into French in 1987 by Gallimard] , a class struggle which echoed War and Peace  , by Leo Tolstoy. Two soldiers challenge each other to a duel almost twenty times in twenty years. In the end, they no longer remember the primary reason for their antagonism. This sums up the idiocy and madness of war. Everyone loses. In The Duellists , Napoleon appears only as a shadow, a new god worshiped by his troops. This film sparked my fascination with him.
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