‘I have not spent a day without loving you; I have not spent a night without clasping you in my arms; I have not drunk a cup of tea without cursing the glory and ambition which keep me from the heart of my very being.
In the midst of my activities, whether at the head of my troops or inspecting the camps, my adorable Josephine stands alone in my heart, she occupies my mind and fills my thoughts.’
Napoleon in a love letter to Joséphine 1827.
I finally had a chance to see Ridley Scott’s recent movie Napoleon on the big screen. There’s only one cinema on the island and during the school holidays it predominately screens PG movies for families. Apparently, Barbie is still extremely popular along with reruns of the 2003 romcom, Love Actually.
Getting back to Napoleon. Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role and he’s terrific. But traditionally – as with most Hollywood historical movies – Ridley Scott plays fast and loose with historical facts.
Usually, I think judging a Hollywood film by how well it documents history is absurd. But I was perplexed by Ridley Scott’s depiction of Napoleon’s mistress and later first wife, Joséphine Bonaparte. In the film she comes across as a young, vulgar, simpering, silly woman on the make.
It defies conjecture as to why the director thought characterizing her as witless and uncouth was a good idea.
It also doesn’t make sense given the rigidity of Napoleon’s court. He was a man given to pomp and circumstance and rarely did anything in public that could undermine his assumed right to rule the French.
Napoleon curated his image and controlled the press, so his military losses and cockups would be viewed in a more forgiving light.
However, the Civil Code he devised – covering all aspects of French civilian’s life – remains in place two centuries later. Napoleon’s code has also been successfully adapted by several other European countries.
In the movie, Scott depicts Joséphine hurling food at Napoleon during a classy society dinner. She also joins him under the breakfast table for some sexual action – while being observed by expressionless manservants standing rigidly to attention in a dining room. Really?
Joséphine is also seen shamelessly lifting her long petticoats and flashing her vagina at Napoleon when he is courting her in the parlour of her house. She giggles compulsively during her marriage ceremony and while being crowned Empress of the French.
None of these actions fit with who she was.
In portraits completed during her lifetime, Joséphine never smiled. It’s believed she was concealing the fact her teeth were rotten. She only ever gave a half smile. Therefore, it’s difficult to imagine her – as does Ridley Scott – chortling and smirking at everyone.
Being the eldest daughter of impoverished aristocrat, Joseph Tascher de La Pagerie, Joséphine lived the first 15 years of her life on the island of Martinique on his sugar cane plantation. Her enthusiasm for sweet sugar ruined her smile in later life.
Joséphine Bonaparte was born as Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher but became simply known as Joséphine on a whim of Napoleon. Previously she’d been known as Rose.
While married to Alexandre-Francois-Marie, Vicomte de Beauharnais, Joséphine had affairs with influential politicians such as Paul Barras. Her marriage to Beauharnais was a miserable affair but he still managed to father her two children.
They later officially separated, and she lived with the children at the Vicomte’s expense at Pentemont Abbey in Paris. He was brutally guillotined during the French Revolution, but Joséphine survived imprisonment and was eventually released.
It’s been verified that Joséphine was always keen to further her own prospects and those of her children by attaching herself to well connected, influential men such as Napoleon.
The list of her lovers is either short or long, depending on which historian you read. Whereas totting up the number of Bonaparte’s lovers hasn’t been of keen interest of academics. Could this be interpreted as a double standard perhaps?
Another thing that’s often omitted by academics is the fact Joséphine was a cultured woman from an aristocratic background. And she actively demonstrated a deep interest in the fine arts.
Once she’d gained extreme wealth – courtesy of marriage to Bonaparte – Joséphine was able to play patron to gifted artists. Her many debts and ability to spend money drove Napoleon up the wall.
She was a woman who loved to spend and wasn’t above lowering her own age and upping Napoleon’s age on their marriage certificate to minimize the six years age difference. But in the movie Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) is played by a much younger actress.
Joséphine commissioned and bought the works of many artists. She also became a specialist in horticulture and was an animal lover. At the lovely Château de Malmaison, Joséphine kept rare and exotic plants and animals and cultivated plants never before grown in France.
Joséphine is also noteworthy for having created the first written history of the cultivation of roses, and she hosted the first rose exhibition in 1810. She boldly had a heated orangery constructed, big enough to house 300 pineapple plants and a large greenhouse powered by a dozen coal-burning stoves.
In conclusion, Ridley Scott’s portrait of the Empress of the French seems somewhat limited and decidedly bizarre.
image: Joséphine de Bonaparte at Malmaison 1801 by François Gérard