Monsieur N.
2 out of 5 stars
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monsieur n "History is a lie that no one questions." So says Napoleon in this playful thriller examining what really may have happened during the last years of the emperor's exile. The film cross-cuts between 1840, when Napoleon's body is reburied in Paris, and the years on St Helena from 1815 to 1821. The story is told by Lt Heathcote (Rodan), a young aide on the island charged with keeping an eye on the high-profile prisoner (Torreton) and reporting back to the increasingly paranoid British governor Lowe (Grant), who forbids even the use of the man's name. Napoleon is accompanied into exile by his first officer (Zem), his oldest confidant (Putzulu) and two bickering generals (Freiss and Pierrot). But it's years later when Heathcote starts examining discrepancies in official documents that hint at the fact that the emperor may not have died on the island after all.

This is the second film in a year to toy with this idea, but while the British-made The Emperor's New Clothes plays it whimsically, this film plays it very straight, with verbose dialog and intertwined characters. (Well, it is a French film!) There are flashes of character-based humour, no doubt added by comedian-turned-director de Caunes, but the overall pretentiousness undermines a story that can never be proved or disproved. And does it matter anyway? Performances are good, especially Torreton's understated emperor and the intriguing, arrogant generals around him. Grant is left to play a smug weasel without much shading, and the women are one-dimensional but rather interesting--with Zylberstein's pragmatically cynical Frenchwoman in vivid contrast to Hewlett's idealistic English rose. De Caunes films it beautifully, capturing the isolation of a South Atlantic island (it was filmed in South Africa), although the editing feels harsh, oddly missing key moments and leaving us slightly off balance as a result. This is a battle of wits between Napoleon and Lowe, the last battle in the emperor's great career. The mystery is intriguing, but the film never sorts fact from fiction, adding romantic complications that don't draw us in and filling scenes with wordy but irrelevant nonsense. And without either the courage of its convictions or a sense of free-wheeling fantasy, the film feels strangely lifeless, piquing our interest but never taking us anywhere.

cert 12tbc adult themes, violence, some language 23.Sep.03

dir Antoine de Caunes
scr Rene Manzor
with Philippe Torreton, Richard E Grant, Jay Rodan, Roschdy Zem, Elsa Zylberstein, Siobhan Hewlett, Bruno Putzulu, Stephane Freiss , Frederic Pierrot, Stanley Townsend, Igor Skreblin, Peter Sullivan
release France 12.Feb.03; UK 23.Apr.04; US 21.Jan.05
Studio Canal
03/France 2h09

Lady in waiting: Torreton and Zylberstein

decaunes torreton grant

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2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall