Monsieur N (2003)

Erik Hinton

This film is undone, to a degree, by its overreaching.

Monsieur N

Director: Antoine de Caunes
Cast: Phillippe Torreton, Richard E. Grant
Distributor: First Run Features
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Redbus
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-22

As much as most critics would like to write under a pretense of objectivity, truthfully, most reviews are sounding boards for an author to wax filmic about some aspect of cinema or the other. In some cases, the piece is simply to show off one’s latitude of knowledge of say Max Ophüls' oeuvre, or responses to Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze”. However, very rarely does criticism assume an “analysis-verité”, striving merely to represent the film outside of any prejudice or agenda of the author. Perhaps such an idealistic manifestation of criticism is impossible, after all we are employed for our opinions, and reviews will immutably be written by the critic and not the film. Nevertheless, it is an interesting pole to consider: a review as a movie’s filmic apperception.

This state of affairs is not troubling until one encounters a film that strikes no chords in one whatsoever and thus can not be tethered to a rant on the state of modern filmmaking or some philosophical tangent. Such a film would not be good enough to exact praise for its technical mastery; it would not be poor enough to incite the ol’ Plan Nine-how much-humor-can-I-pack-into-this-trashing review; it would not even be quietly unremarkable enough to say something to the effect of, “This film subtly slips under the radar, meant to be appreciated with a similar subtlety.” Rather, the movie would be nicely executed, lacking vibrancy, but shackled with an epic milieu. Monsieur N. is, of course, this paradoxically “unreviewable” film. That being said, I’m going to do my darndest to review it.

Antoine de Caunes’ Monsier N. is a hypothetical narrative of Napolean’s exile on St. Helena. It chronicles the romantic intrigue, friction between French and English forces, and anxiety in guarding France’s cardinal leader from escape all of which could have occurred while Napolean was thus interred. However, all of this is just a set-up for the real emphasis of movie: the possibility that Napolean drew his last breath on St. Helena but that through an elaborate ruse lived out the rest of his life in obscurity. Upon hearing this premise I instantly heard Owen Wilson qua Eli Cash pitching the film, “Everyone knows that Napolean died on St. Helena. What this film presupposes is… ‘What if he didn’t?’”

All of this executed…nicely. Phillipe Torreton turns in a truly masterful portrayal of Napoleon commanding the “Little General’s” air of dignity and nobility while maintaining a beautiful humanity. With a timbre that falters at all the right moments and a steely exterior which is satisfyingly translucent, Torreton does Napoleon better than the French emperor probably did himself. Maybe I just like the idea of the megalomaniac drawn in such a sympathetic light, crestfallen and endearingly in love with a woman (one MsBetsy Balcombe played by Siobhan Hewlett).

The mise-en-scene is appropriately lush and colored in such a way that its elegance is played up while still engendering an overarching doleful mood. Appropriately muted, the hues ofMonsieur N. complement the performances and somewhat soporific score which create a total effect which mirrors the painful inertia of the island’s community quietly brimming with conspiracy. Furthermore, the mobile framing is deftly handled such that the claustrophobia of the diegetic space is effectively communicated. After all, St. Helena is essentially a five-star resort which its celebrity was prohibited from leaving. However, interdiction ceases at departure for Napolean and the French ensure that he is left wanting nothing.

All of this should make a very pleasant film: a character study with a spattering of action. However, it is not satisfied with such an existence. Monsieur N. attempts to summon the epic. This weight is too much for this nice piece to completely support and much is lost in the process. The cast is unwieldy with no less than a dozen and a half players with at least moderate parts. Keeping this architecture straight is a feat in itself; however, the plot is also mind-numbingly complicated.

The film is structured as essentially an extended flashback but this is not obvious until the end of the movie. The “present” scenes integrate within the script all too inconspicuously and they are easily missed as in a different time frame than the rest of Monsieur N. Furthermore, it takes not one, but two summarizing montages to detail how Napoleon actually escaped from St. Helena. Not to spoil the film, but it involves no less than three switches of bodies. Rather than being a pleasant puzzle, Napolean’s legerdemain is just annoying and complicated.

In retrospect, I suppose it was not entirely that hard to review Monsieur N. I feel, though, that I cannot adequately say whether or not this is a good film. The childhood saying, “Shoot for the moon because even if you miss you will end up in the stars,” despite being absolutely astronomically incorrect, comes to mind. The film is undone, to a degree, by its overreaching, but whereas most misguided ambition takes the shape of too much with too little money, Monsieur N.’s hamartia is born out of performances and art direction which are simply too sublime to be saddled to the “puzzle-epic” that the film wants to be.

Watching Napolean’s relationships blossom and unfold is a beautiful spectacle. The Napolean-escape plot, in its crude and overly intricate structure, seems to be hobbled together with the rest of the movie. Also, it makes the film too long. Trim the fat, Caunes, and you would have a marvelous film, small (on the epic scale), but marvelous nevertheless.

The special features aren’t really worth mentioning as both the interviews and the “Legend of Napoleon” are text only. The interview with Caunes proves that he sees this piece as a much larger product than it should be. Many of his answers are riddled with quotations that betray his intent for mythic proportions, speaking of how Napoleon became a true legend on St. Helena, etc. Nevertheless, reading an interview with a DVD is ever so much less satisfying and worthwhile than watching it.





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