Dir: Antoine de Caunes. Fr-UK-South Africa. 2003. 129mins.
French TV presenter and sometime journalist Antoine de Caunes takes on Napoleon, with decidedly mixed results for the historical thriller Monsieur N. The made-for-co-production story straddles two cultures, but despite this, Monsieur N will not easily sell to the English-speaking territories it hopes to court. Nor will British amour-propre be flattered by the dire French accents of the Anglo contingent: only dubbing can save the lame excuse for Italian spoken by Monsieur N himself. At over two hours, the film's running-time is over-indulgent, leaving too much Europudding come the end of the Emperor's banquet. In France the film opened to a respectable $604,968 from 290 screens against stiff box office competition. Internationally, it also played in the Panorama sidebar at Berlin.
De Caunes' second feature takes as its starting point the rumours that the body exhumed on Napoleon's exile home of St Helena in 1840, before reburial in France, may not have been his. If this sounds familiar, then that is because Alan Taylor's 2001 feature The Emperor's New Clothes, trod very similar ground, following Ian Holm's Napoleon back to Paris after an identity-switch. De Caunes' emperor never reaches Paris; but in any case, the trumped-up mystery element is the least convincing thing about the film.
After Waterloo, Napoleon and his closest followers were exiled to St Helena in the mid-Atlantic, which was remote and well-garrisoned enough to ensure that there would be no Elba-style escape. By 1818, when fresh-faced military school graduate Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) first sets foot there, the former emperor has become a virtual recluse in his manorhouse-prison. Stern new governor Hudson Lowe - played by Richard E Grant with his usual sneer of cold contempt - appoints Heathcote as military attache to Longwood, with instructions to keep an eye on a man who is still considered a dangerous loose cannon.
Multiple love interests, an escape plot, the jockeying of the emperor's entourage for a bite of the inheritance and the governor's desire to bring Napoleon's exile to a hasty end in order to save the Crown £8 million a year all keep the story moving along. Dramatic cohesion is provided by Torreton's rich, dark account of the ailing emperor. But when a miraculously unaged Heathcote pops up in Paris 22 years later to solve the mystery of the supposed Napoleon's supposed death from supposed natural causes in 1821, the film's 'what if' premise begins to fray at the seams.
Instead, the film is more interesting when it dwells on the reality of the oddly formal micro-court that attempted to recreate the protocol, elegance and splendour of the emperor's Parisian glory days on this bare, windswept island.
Philippe Torreton's broodingly powerful account of Napoleon almost carries the day; but the intensity of his performance serves to expose the more conventional costume drama that surrounds it. The result is an unbalanced film which riffs confusingly around a dual timeline.
Cinenatographer Pierre Aim makes the most of the spectacular scenery (the film was mainly shot on location in South Africa) and raking light to set the shiny buttons, red jackets and not-tonight-Josephine frocks against a soaring natural backdrop of heather-strewn hills, surrounded by broiling seas.
But this visual verve is let down by a hokum plot and limp dialogue, at its weakest in some laborious voice-overs such as: 'The unease that had appeared in Bertrand's eyes when I spoke of the rumours surrounding the autopsy report...').
Prod co: Loma Nasha Productions
Int'l sales: Studio Canal Int'l
Fr dist: Mars
Prod: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, Pierre Kubel
Scr: Rene Manzor, from an idea by Kubel
Cinematography: Pierre Aim
Prod des: Patrick Durand
Ed: Joele van Effenterre
Music: Stefan Eicher
Main cast: Philippe Torreton, Richard E Grant, Jay Rodan, Elsa Zylberstein, Roschdy Zem, Bruno Putzulu, Stephane Freiss, Frederic Pierrot, Siobhan Hewlett