Exile is a complicated business for Napoleon Bonaparte (Phillippe Torreton). According to Monsieur N, his condemnation in 1815 to live out the rest of his days on St. Helena was only the beginning of a series of political and romantic intrigues, many involving exchanges of and promises. Ever domineering and devious, he embraces one last chance to cast women and men against one another in order to plot his escape and seeming death.
The mystery surrounding Napoleon’s end may well be fictional, but it continues to fascinate. Reimagined as the memories of Lieutenant Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan), Napoleon’s last aide-de-camp, the plot unfolds gradually and circuitously, cutting back and forth in time as an older, now Colonel, Heathcote questions survivors in hopes of discovering what happened. That so many of his interviewees remain competitive and conniving, only hinting at truths and accusing one another, makes the past into an intricate puzzle to be solved.
Or not. The possibilities envisioned by Antoine de Caunes’ film, written by René Manzor, have more to do with the motives and deployments of “history” (as Napoleon pithily observes here, “History belongs to those who tell it”) than any sort of truth. As much as dates, figures, and events may resonate for generations that follow, the untold details of the past bring their own burdens, for those who choose to keep secrets as well as those who endeavor to dig them up.
The movie opens on the rainy disinternment of Napoleon’s body in 1940, in preparation for its return to Paris. Looking out on the event, Heathcote ponders his own potential part in what now seems an elaborate deception, by which Napoleon escaped St. Helena rather than died by poisoning. Recalling his initial assignment to the remote South Atlantic island (“I was celebrating my 20th birthday that very day”), the morally upright officer goes on to revisit the machinations of his superiors, including Napoleon and the martinetty governor of the island, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant, snooty and big-eyed as ever). Heathcoate absolves himself of knowing participation, introducing his tale with the caution, “I don’t want to rewrite history, but through my humble account to shed some light on the puzzling events that I witnessed, events that continue to remain a mystery to me.”
The scene at St. Helena is surely bizarre. Napoleon remains master of this desolate domain, even as he is guarded by some 3,000 British troops, 1,000 assigned to his residence at Longwood House. He has brought with him as well an entrenched inner circle, loyal servants (including his valet Cipriani [Bruno Putzulu], who dies of poison seemingly intended for the emperor), the “living legend,” Grand Marshall of the Palace Bertrand (Roschdy Zem), and the Generals Montholon (Stéphane Freiss) and Gourgaud (Frédéric Pierrot). These last are aptly introduced mid-squabble, chasing one another through stable and then countryside with swords drawn and breath growing short. As Heathcote remarks, the men are competing for positions in Napoleon’s will, and so display their devotions in various manners. While “Gourgaud loved his emperor like a jealous woman,” while Montholon “was more like a toady for the general,” going so far as to grant him use of Madame Montholon, Albine (Elsa Zylberstein), who will bear the emperor’s daughter.
Heathcote is most interested in the emperor’s relationship with a British beauty, Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), who regularly announces her love for Napoleon, whom she first spotted on horseback when she was a girl. Still drawn to her own memory of the dashing, brilliant warrior, she’s unable to appreciate Heathcote’s own doting on her, though he makes it clear that she is the impetus for his investigation so many years after the fact.
As Heathcote digs deeper into the apparent mystery of the emperor’s last “great campaign” on St. Helena, he begins to distrust everyone with whom he speaks. Some, like Lowe, seem wholly deserving of suspicion, as he appears, in past and present, a man consumed by his own reputation and unable to speak without lying. At the same time, he recognizes a similar impulse in is interrogator. “You’re a much better dramatist than an officer, Heathcote,” he says, half derisive and have desperate to cover up his own covetous history. “You’ve missed your calling.”
But really, Heathcote has not, as he pursues the truth with the passion of an artist, wanting to compose his own version of history as much as he wants to discover someone else’s. Napoleon’s story is about freedom, to possess, abuse, and name the world around him. And so he cannot even admit he is caught by someone else. Though an escape is surely feasible, he has a greater plan in mind, for “The man who escapes admits he’s a prisoner.”
Even Heathcote’s own exchanges with the emperor are suspect, as his desire — to believe, to grasp, to possess — is palpable. When, for instance, the emperor tells him a brief, off the cuff lie about his own heritage, the awkward and eager aide-de-camp seems almost to desire its veracity. “Men will sacrifice reason to their imagination,” pronounces Napoleon, proud that he’s still “got it,” the capacity for dishonesty, but also rueful that it’s so easy. And Heathcote can only nod.