“Some orders should be disobeyed.”
Monsieur N is the story of the final years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life during his imprisonment on the bleak island of St. Helena. Napoleon (Philippe Torreton) lives with a small entourage of followers in Longworth House. In spite of the fact he’s a prisoner, Napoleon still has an extraordinary amount of privilege within his household. When the new ambitious commander, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), takes charge, he finds the privileges of rank extended to Napoleon absurd.
Monsieur N is told through the eyes of a young, idealistic aide de camp, Lieutenant Heathcote (Jay Rodan). Heathcote secretly admires Bonaparte, and so the story places Heathcote in a position of some dilemma. It’s his job to ensure Bonaparte stays put, but his superiors–Hudson Lowe, in particular–chafe at the privilege Bonaparte enjoys at incredible expense to the British government.
Monsieur N succeeds in many areas. As a depiction of the times, the film cannot be faulted. Director Antoine de Caunes re-creates the early nineteenth century adeptly as the film jumps back and forth in time and divides scenes on St. Helena with scenes in Paris after Bonaparte’s body is returned for a state funeral in 1840. Philippe Torreton’s complex portrayal of Napoleon is perfect. In one scene, Napoleon is the laconic, mordant observer, and in the next scene, he’s peevish and petty. He is surrounded by squabbling favourites who jealously guard his attention and any future inheritance. The power of Napoleon’s personality is seen at its strongest in the scenes when Napoleon faces Lowe. Napoleon, the prisoner–is commanding–dominating all the interaction as he thoroughly emasculates the venomous Lowe. The potency of Torreton and Grant’s performances establish Napoleon’s ability to inspire, incite and destroy men. In one scene, Lowe stresses how many men died the last time Bonaparte escaped. This simple statement underscores the danger Bonaparte–a caged tiger–represents. He has the power to create and destroy armies, and that power is chained and subdued–but for how long?
Monsieur N is less-than-successful when the film nosedives into an absurd, speculative mystery–with Lt. Heathcote (now Colonel Heathcote) shaking down various Parisians in an attempt to solve the mystery of Napoleon’s death. The intense mystery–which appears out of nowhere–dominants the final half an hour of the film. Thankfully, the ending redeems the film from absurdity, when Colonel Heathcote acknowledges that his desire for an answer to the mystery lies in his hero worship of Napoleon. And this ending allows us to contemplate that some larger-than-life figures are projected into our culture’s mythology for generations. Monsieur N is in English and French (with English subtitles), and the DVD includes a few extras including some information regarding the controversy surrounding Napoleon’s body. After watching the film, fans of this historical period will find themselves diving for the nearest Napoleon biography to slake their desire to know more.