Napoleonic Coda: Drama Investigates Emperor’s Death


The coyly titled Napoleon biopic Monsieur N. is framed as the memoirs of a British lieutenant who aims “not to rewrite history” but—more melodramatically—”to shed some light on the puzzling events that I witnessed.” The mystery begins on the colony of St. Helena, where the former emperor spent the last six years of his life in exile. St. Helena is “a prison barely visible on a map,” Lieutenant Heathcote (Jay Rodan) tells us, but it’s barely a prison: Still protected by his old guard, Napoleon has the sympathies of most of the residents and lives like a king. When his new jailer (Richard E. Grant) attempts to introduce himself, he’s made to wait three days. Naively, the movie depicts the former conqueror as an innocuous authoritarian, writing his memoirs, speculating about a unified Europe, gardening, screwing, and beekeeping. The official story is that N. died of cancer, but alternative scenarios have long circulated: Why were large traces of arsenic found on his corpse? Why was the body of his butler (and possible half-brother) never located? And why, if Napoleon’s confinement was costing the British 8 million pounds per month (and 3,000 soldiers), would his captors bother keeping him alive?

As spectacle, Monsieur N. is often stodgy, laced with the stale exposition of Masterpiece Theater; a few Visconti signifiers (Alain Delon look-alike, climactic ballroom dance, old man contemplating impending obsolescence) feel largely unearned. But as modest conspiracy-mongering, the movie is perfectly robust, earning its dramatic impact from its classical sense of intrigue and Philippe Torreton’s testy performance in the title role. The widescreen cinematography helps to open up the stuffy interiors—even the fromage aroma of the love quadrangle (Heathcote versus Napoleon for angelic Brit Betsy; Betsy versus Napoleon’s mistress for the man himself) wafts away in the breeze. Screenwriter René Manzor doesn’t have his subject’s genius for strategy, and the movie’s last third gets bogged down in vertiginous flashbacks. But if the whodunit is ultimately deflated, Monsieur N. has value for comparative nationalist mythmaking: The ending plays like the lighter side of JFK.