Monsieur N. Movie Review

No movie to my mind has made such a disaster of the voiceover device as Antoine de Caunes' Monsieur N. In fact, the movie should be cited in Screenwriting 101 courses as an example of how, when in the service of a poorly conceived story, the voiceover can become a go-to device for filling in expository and emotional nuances that the script fails to convey. The voiceover in Monsieur N. belongs to a young British aide-de-camp, Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan), who is assigned to monitor Napoleon's (Philippe Torreton) daily activities during the latter's imprisonment on St. Helena between 1815 and 1821, the year Napoleon supposedly died. Manzor intersperses the script with Heathcote's voiceover, favoring his intimate impressions without sufficiently fleshing him out as a character or developing any sense of why he particularly matters. In director Antoine de Caunes' fidgety hands, what is meant to be a suspenseful lark into historical revisionism quickly becomes an earnest and thudding bore.

Manzor's script grafts upon this movie a Citizen Kane-type structure as it shunts us between the occasion of Napoleon's exhumation in Paris in 1840 and 20 years earlier, during Napoleon's island imprisonment. Upon his exhumation, the question is raised of how Napoleon died -- from an ulcer or slow poisoning? -- and whether Napoleon died at all -- or, as rumor has it, he foisted his butler Cipriani's body in place of his own and escaped to an anonymous life elsewhere. To find out, Heathcote questions Napoleon's mistress, Albine (Elsa Zylberstein), and the few officers who attended to him on St. Helena, as well as the British governor, Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant), once in charge of Napoleon's imprisonment and now reduced to an aging and disgraced wreck. Their reflections -- alternately wistful and caustic -- cue us to extended flashbacks of those island years and of Napoleon's shrewdly enigmatic persona. There is also the question of Betsy Balcombe (Siobhan Hewlett), an English merchant's daughter on St. Helena with whom Napoleon has an affair -- much to Albine's chagrin and Heathcote's too, for we're meant to believe that Heathcote's also smitten with her. But his gambit, at one point, to express his feelings to her is laughable, because it's such an obvious ploy by Manzor to bring his character to some turn-of-fate, having arrived here using voiceovers as a shortcut device and never treading the hard road of character development to earn his way.

Why Heathcote is particularly driven into this story's events is anyone's guess. Had Manzor and de Caunes developed a sympathetic bond between the naïve Heathcote and Napoleon, the broken warrior, and between Heathcote and the lovelorn Betsy, that might've justified his motive to investigate Napoleon's past and his death, and, by extension, the motive for this entire misbegotten movie. Similarly, the battle of wills between Lowe and Napoleon (à la The Bridge on the River Kwai) and the domestic tug-of-war among Napoleon's toadies, all vying for the man's affections, register little of the suspense or intrigue these matters can be relied on to do, confirming the suspicion that neither Manzor nor de Caunes had the vaguest idea what tone they were going for.

The performances can't be ignored. They range from the ridiculous (Grant's Lowe is such a straitlaced prig you want to give him a wedgie after every scene) to the pedestrian. Radon fares the worst, straining for a 19th century romantic aura out of the pages of Bronte or Flaubert but too stiff to pull it off. Finally, the idea that history is fallible, serving only the victors, and that the contents of its pages must always be held up for questioning is at the movie's heart but it's never elaborated upon beyond drivels of dialogue. Monsieur N.'s arbitrarily complex structure further diffuses whatever message this material could've conveyed. The evocative 19th century milieu and the movie's conspiratorial premise may keep you hanging in there, but just barely and certainly not with a straight face.

Monseiur bald spot.

Cast & Crew


Comments

Monsieur N. Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: NR, 2003

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