Two Prisoners

by Stanley Kauffmann | February 14, 2005

Monsieur N
(Empire)

The Woodsman
(Newmarket) 

When the stars fade, when the cosmos darkens, there will still be one spot of light on planet Earth. That light will be a film studio where they are shooting another picture about Napoleon.

Napoleon's effect on the world's publishing industry is unnerving: the number of books about him is beyond fantasy. His effect on the film world is certainly not comparable; still it looms. This country made nine films about him before sound arrived; since then he has been played by Charles Boyer and Marlon Brando. Just two years ago Britain sent us The Emperor's New Clothes with Ian Holm as Napoleon. (Holm had previously played a comic version of the role in Time Bandits.) As for France, suffice it to say that one of the landmarks in French film history is Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927). I have seen all these films, plus two Napoleons in the theater and one on television. But the most memorable Napoleon line is in Madame Sans-Gene (1961), in which he figures but is not the center. The emperor's siblings are seated around a table. He distributes thrones to them and says, "We must keep Europe in the family." 

All the more credit then to Rene Manzor, who wrote Monsieur N, and to Antoine de Caunes, who directed it. Their film comes along after the flood. Disregarding all those previous films with an insouciance that their talents completely justify, Manzor and Caunes have lavished fervor and intensity on their picture as if this were the first time the subject had been touched, even though their story has an angle similar to the Holm film--Napoleon's possible escape from St. Helena. Laden as I was with Napoleonic experience, I was all the happier for the brio and--the only word--freshness of Monsieur N.

The film is set in two time planes, and it is up to us to decide which scenes are set in the present and which are in the future or the past. In 1816 on St. Helena, Napoleon has already been captive for six months. A new British commander, Sir Hudson Lowe, arrives to take over the forces, whose task is to see that there is not another Elba. Three thousand soldiers and eleven battleships guard the emperor, two of the ships constantly circling the island in opposite directions. One English officer has personally to check on the emperor's presence twice a day.

The English, says Lowe to his aide, Lieutenant Heathcote, are spending L8 million a year to seclude Napoleon, with a hint that the emperor's demise would be a benefit. The warders constantly suspect that their charge is planning an escape. (There is also an attempt by pirates to kidnap him.) These are the chief matters in one time plane. The other plane, twenty years later, actually opens the picture--a sequence in which Napoleon's coffin is exhumed to make sure that he is really in it--and that plane is woven through the film as we see what happened to some of the people who had been on St. Helena with the emperor.

The dialogue is in English and French: the chief English officers speak to Napoleon in French and are complimented by him on their fluency.Also there are some flurries in Italian between him and his attendant, a fellow Corsican. Unifying the whole is a voice-over in English, spoken by the former Lieutenant Heathcote as he looks back at St. Helena after twenty years. 

Why does this film fascinate? Certainly it is not because of the plot, which must not here be disclosed but which is just about sufficient. The film holds us principally because of its Napoleon. Philippe Torreton doesn't perform the role: he exists. He exists so thoroughly that the historical magnitude of the situation grips us. Here is a man, one solitary man, who had Europe in his hands. (Latter-day comparisons are inescapable and, without any underscoring in the script, help to deepen the film.) Defeated and exiled once before, he had managed to return from Elba to France for the Hundred Days that almost re-established him. Now, as he broods and dines and sleeps and amuses himself with the wife of a general on his staff (with the general's compliance), he still seems fraught with power, deep, secret even when he is conversing, amused and irritated by the innate puniness of those who confine him. Torreton creates all this without posturing or bravado; he makes Napoleon chordal and complex.

Richard E. Grant, previously most noted for comedy (beginning with Withnail & I), plays Sir Hudson Lowe with all the weight of responsibility and the constant abrasive edge of that responsibility. Jay Rodan provides a perfectly competent Lieutenant Heathcote. Elsa Zylberstein is coolly seductive as Napoleon's comfort, and Stephane Freiss is understandable as her husband. A young English woman who later attracts the emperor is given bloom by Siobhan Hewlett.

But the picture is certified even before it gets well under way by the acuity of Caunes's eye. The opening exhumation scene tells us in its texture that we are in the hands of a talent, and the exquisite camera work by Pierre Aim sustains it. The sense of film as time machine, transporting us back into history, is engrossing. That atmosphere and the very look of Monsieur N strengthen its grip.

Caunes, who is in his fifties, has been a film actor since 1982 and has directed three previous features. More, please.

Pedophilia has not been quite as frequent a film topic as Napoleon, but neither is it a novelty. In fact, one of the film world's perdurable classics, Fritz Lang's M, is about a murderous pedophile. Others on the subject were The Mark (1961) and of course Lolita (twice--1962 and 1997). 

Now a young director named Nicole Kassell, who wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter, presents The Woodsman. The deliberately bland title--the pedophile gets a post-prison job in a lumberyard--is affixed to a simmering story. Walter has served a term for molesting a little girl. Now he is trying to re-organize his life from the inside out. He is not, in the vernacular sense, a criminal. He is a man with an affliction who is trying to make his way to and through normality.

The workings of the plot are neither surprising nor artificial: they seem to be Walter's fate--with a final hint of hope. The picture's essence is the performance of Kevin Bacon as Walter. Taciturn, grimly holding on to life with his fingertips, Walter is like someone carrying a vial of nitroglycerin within himself that he is trying not to upset. Sympathy for a pedophile is difficult, but surely comprehension may be possible, and Bacon evokes it.

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.

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