When considering Monsieur N, I was reminded of the proverb, “History is written by the victors”, as I realised that the little I knew about Napoleon smacked of contemporary British propaganda. I knew, for example, that Napoleon was a short, fat megalomaniac who walked funny, with his hand inside his tunic. I knew of his losses in Russia and at Waterloo, and his exile on Elba, but I knew nothing of his victories.
Monsieur N, directed by Eurotrash‘s Antoine de Caunes, unsurprisingly takes a more respectful approach to its subject. It tells the story of the last years of Napoleon’s life, imprisoned by the British on St Helena, a remote island off the west coast of Africa. Napoleon, played by Philippe Torreton, retains a loyal entourage of officers who help him plot his escape, and evade the attentions of the island’s overzealous Governor: Sir Hudson Lowe (Richard E Grant).
However, despite the comic potential of this tale of hubris and noble descent, de Caunes plays it alarmingly straight, weaving a detective mystery around the central drama, with Jay Rodan’s Officer Heathcote investigating The Mystery of the Emperor’s Corpse.
The best thing about the film is the dialogue, which is appropriately rich in metaphor and bon mots. When Napoleon’s mistress asks whether she can trust his promises, he replies: “Why ask if the water is fresh when there is nothing else to drink?” The cinematography is impressive too, with lavish moments occasionally reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac.
However there’s more to film-making than chiaroscuro and quips, but sadly not to this film. The acting is variable, with most of the English cast struggling with the rhythms of the French dialogue, and Richard E. Grant giving a particularly hammy turn that would have been quite at home in Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. The French cast fare better, with de Caunes’ partner Elsa Zylberstein impressive as Napoleon’s venal mistress.
The cast aren’t helped by Ren Manzor’s confused script that takes this obviously comic premise far too seriously, and then is unsure whether to be a weighty drama or a twisty thriller. The conflict between Napoleon and Lowe does have promising moments, but is never adequately developed, as the film wastes time on pointless romantic subplots, and red herrings for a mystery that’s introduced far too late.
At one point Napoleon pronounces, “Men’s passion for the fantastical is such that they will sacrifice reason to it,” a statement for which this confused film provides ample support.