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Napoleon and Saltburn; Aesthetically Opposite, Spiritually Parallel

Ridley Scott’s latest biopic about the late 18th and early 19th-century French despot Napoleon has received tellingly mixed reviews and responses.  The film lovers I’ve discussed the film with are split down the middle, some had their tickets booked in advance, and others refused to consider going. 

Ridley Scott, the director of House of Gucci, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and the upcoming Gladiator II, is currently on a late-in-life adventure of making as many films as possible at 86 years old. 

Anna Khachiyan on the Red Scare podcast called Napoleon “murky, both visually and spiritually...” She was referring to the mostly murky, unhygienic aesthetics and the film's confused portrayal of the historical figure. As with most of the intoxicated, post-post-post-ironic, at turns upsettingly insensitive, then profoundly respectful, ramblings of Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrosova on the podcast, one has to pick and choose what one can generously disregard and conversely what one can take as philosophical drunken hypotheses, almost always useful but very rarely correct. I believe Khachiyan’s characterisation of Napoleon belongs to the latter description.

The elusive biopic of Napoleon has tempted one eccentric, elderly auteur prior to Ridley Scott. Stanley Kubrick became obsessed with Napoleon in the last years of his life. Kubrick’s extensive research, omniscient script, and his ultimate failure to create the film have inspired much lore, leading to Taschen’s publication of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made in 2009. 

According to Taschen the “tribute to this unmade masterpiece makes Kubrick’s valiant work on ‘Napoleon’ available to fans for the first time.” Steven Spielberg has reportedly been developing Kubrick’s buried script with HBO. Khachiyan’s statement implies that Napoleon’s story continues to elude filmmakers, with Ridley Scott not investing in either a revisionist or historically accurate, critical or sympathetic portrayal, and therefore achieving none of the above.

The other major release of the winter of 2023 was Emerald Fennell’s thriller-comedy Saltburn. (Spoiler Alert!) Much has been said about both of these films but as far as I know, few connections have been drawn between their contents, contexts, and their place in film and overall culture in the early 20’s. 

Most online discussion about Saltburn seems to be centred around two camps, firstly that it’s just a refreshingly and intensely aesthetic portrayal of a well-known, Talented Mr Ripley-esque story. The opposing camp, of which I happen to be a member, is that the message is confusing at best, at worst sinister. 

Oliver Quick, a perfectly well-off middle-class boy masquerading as a downtrodden, mistreated, sad working-class boy, worms his way into the home and some of the hearts of the Catton family, whose ancestral home is Saltburn. The Catton’s are frighteningly and cruelly oblivious. 

Oliver capitalises on their desire to be seen as generous, kind, and magnanimous while being unmoving in their desire that this generosity should never be given at even the smallest personal energetic or financial cost.

I would argue that as Red Scare’s Khachiyan says of Napoleon, Saltburn too is spiritually murky, while being aesthetically, and contemporarily, stunningly beautiful. Saltburn’s beauty is contemporary because it is entirely and obviously alluding to 21st-century aesthetic pillars, the erotic, sex-positive, Gen-Z visuals of Call Me by Your Name and Euphoria, and the aspirational opulence and basic plot of The Talented Mr Ripley.  

Saltburn at first seems to be saying that the British working-class are just as morally bankrupt as the British aristocracy, only without the opportunity and luxuries of the latter. An interesting and relatively innocent concept until one realises that it could be used to excuse the cruelty of the reality of the widening economic inequality between the people at either end of the new global class system. 

However, the lesson of the film, because the film must be portraying a lesson, changes with the revelation that Oliver is not in fact in any way disenfranchised. He is entirely, tiresomely middle-class. 

I believe Saltburn is expressing a singularly 21st century upper-class terror about the growing difficulty - with the rise of easily accessible vintage and second-hand, historically aristocratic clothing, the modern ease and mostly extreme affordability of global travel - of clearly distinguishable class markers. 

The class system is not disappearing, the old class markers are simply no longer valid. Emerald Fennell seems to be portraying, consciously or unconsciously, upper-class fear of misidentifying classes.


Image ‘Napoleon on His Imperial Throne’ by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

Edited by Vicky Muzio.


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