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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Who Is Buried in Grant's Tomb?
by Donald Levit

Some characters difficult to keep straight, its red herrings confusing, its narrator-hero a bit slow and stormy nocturnal scenes hard to penetrate, Monsieur N. is nevertheless fine old-time cinema. Featuring in Lincoln Center's ninth annual March "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema," filmed largely on bleak Saint Helena's forty-seven square miles twelve-hundred remote miles west of Angola, director Antoine de Caunes' work chooses the right touches, from Pierre Am and Berto's camera color-feel of decades ago to stiff redcoats in a sea of drab and on to its sense of intrigue, pettiness, duplicity, loyalty and love capped, at the last, with the dignity of great men and their women. One is reminded of a good nineteenth-century read of duty, love and war -- Thackeray, say -- where stakes are high but the palette reduced.

Convalescing flat on his back in The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant does pre-Internet research and deduces the "truth" of historical skullduggery surrounding bunch-back'd Richard Plantaganet and the child princes murdered in the Tower. (Lines from Richard III are bandied in the current film.) A related and no less intriguing concept informs Ren Manzor's screenplay, with plodding Basil Heathcote (Jay Rodan) rummaging all over Paris two decades after the fact and, improbably -- partly to follow his unspoken love -- no longer French Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The young British officer sees but, like Dr. Watson, does not observe, so, though broadly implied, a definitive answer must remain tantalizingly beyond grasp. A happy blend of history's fact and fancy, counterfactuals and wishes.

Heathcote is our sometimes narrator but always our eyes after opening credits against the stormy exhumation of remarkably preserved Napoleon in his coffin -- October 15, 1840, preparatory to Louis Philippe's state pomp reburial of the remains in Paris two months later. But that is in the future, in which our hero will do his footwork investigation, for suddenly he is a fuzzy-cheeked Sandhurst graduate, on his twenty-second birthday viewing from shipboard his approaching island post where, at a cost of eight million pounds, eleven warships and three thousand troops under new military governor Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant) guard post-Hundred Days Napoleon.

Our narrator wishes to "shed light on historical events that have remained a mystery to me" since that day he assumed duties as liaison, aide-de-camp and indignant unwilling spy assigned to the Little Corporal's secluded residence at Longwood. After initial rebuffs, Heathcote is allowed to meet the Emperor -- "General" to his captors -- who warns him "I'll never be far from you, here . . . in your head" and who comes to accept "my shadow" as a man of principles. The entourage comprises those who have chosen to accompany the exile, including Mameluke Ali (Igor Skreblin), butler Cipriani (Bruno Putzulu) -- a fellow Corsican who sleeps beside the master he so resembles that rumor has them half-brothers -- blunt English army doctor O'Meara (Stanley Townsend) and a remnant of Imperial officers and their wives, women and hangers-on.

Scheming and scuttlebutt abound, of escapes being hatched in von Hogendorp's (Bernard Bloch) Brazil, of the Emperor's will and financial legacy, of pandering in real and imagined favors. Keeping it straight becomes impossible, while the prisoner's health worsens and trustworthy and treacherous appear to change places. Steadfastly among the former is young Betsy Balcombe (Siobhn Hewlett), British-complexioned "shooting star of Saint Helena" and an attraction for Heathcote but unwaveringly in love with "Boney" and one of the few to call him so and speak frankly.
With Heathcote and Betsy, the at first moody, imperious Napoleon wins us, too, in Philippe Torreton's shrewd humanizing performance. To her pooh-poohing the weather as a cause of defeat at Moscow, he confides that his oversleeping did cost Waterloo and, when she recounts her awe of him at first sight, replies that close-up must have made him smaller (not so, she says, just "human"). Though his real motives remain forever murky, though he appears to use the devotion and credulity of others, though we pity the old soldiers camped snowbound outside the grand Paris tomb, the Emperor images Genius -- selfish yet complex, obsessed but affected by loyalty and love.

Wisely, Heathcote turns away unannounced on Betsy's plantation porch, we along with him. What appears established is not necessarily so, for Napoleon's history "is true to those who tell it, a lie no one questions." His dignity lies in "the only important, final battle" faced by king and commoner alike, even as the intervening nineteen years prove unkind to numbers of other participants. Betrayal, stomach cancer or ulcer, intentional or accidental poisoning -- arsenic wallpaper was the lead paint of the day -- in Les Invalides or quietly among beloved countrymen alongside the Seine or in another place of his own choosing -- the question is not answered, nor should it be.

Playing on its narrator's limited knowledge and suspicions, Monsieur N. reflects the title figure's insistence that reason is ultimately sacrificed on the altar of imagination. The latter makes myths, which in turn become man's truth.

(Released by Mars Distribution; not rated by MPAA.) 

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