Let’s say you’re a melon saleswoman in post-Napoleonic, early-19th century Paris, France. An older gentleman, of modest attire, approaches you and claims to be an old acquaintance of your recently deceased (flies still buzzing) military husband. He sprains his ankle on your doorstep; you nurture him back to health, falling in love with him in the process. Then, he claims he’s the Emperor Napoleon. (Girls, how many times has this happened to you?) Would you believe him or decide he’s overdosed on too many Bugs Bunny cartoons?
Simon Leys’ novel, The Death of Napoleon, has been translated by director Alan Taylor into a filmic flight of fancy wrapped in the aura of a Hans Christian Andersen fable, reinventing history as we know it by plugging in a “what if?”
In a dark room, a woman pokes a crackling fire as a young boy lights an oil lamp and projects glass slides with delicate, translucent images illustrating La vie de Napoléon. A man walks in and tells the boy he has the lens backwards, and the order of the triptych is not La Mort-Exile-Fin, but the other way around. Yet even when the boy corrects his mistake, the man rebukes him, “There, it didn’t end like that at all. Let me tell you what really happened.”
Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm) is in exile on a remote island, brooding over betrayals while dictating his memoirs from his bathtub. However, thanks to loyalists, he soon becomes an “emperor out of water” when they pull the ol’ switcheroo, replacing Napoleon with lookalike commoner Eugene Lenormand (also Ian Holm) in an attempt to regain his throne. Disguised as a galley hand on a ship, Paris-bound Napoleon ends up in Antwerp and has to rely on his own ingenuity, instead of his title, to get to his destination.
This isn’t the first time Ian Holm has stepped into the emperor’s shoes. Terry Gilliam fans may recall a more-than-memorable cameo Holm played in Time Bandits as a definitely satirical, very powerful and charismatic Napoleon. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, Holm’s Napoleon starts out in the same direction, as when he’s staring at his mirrorlike stand-in and says, “He looks nothing like me,” then decides he’ll have to do. Irony plagues him as his misadventures take him through the battlefield of Waterloo, now a tourist trap, with little wooden puppets of Napoleon for sale and a sign over the bed he just happened to rest on claiming “Napoleon Slept Here.” But this emperor takes a serious turn — maybe a little too serious for an “exercise of the imagination” like this.
Most of Taylor’s directorial experience stems from episodes of highly regarded cable TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The West Wing” and “Six Feet Under.” With minimal feature-film experience, he may have been too conservative about his big period-piece project to take any real chances at pushing the humor, irony and Napoleonic temper to the breaking point before pulling in the reins. A sea of untapped dramatic potential haunts the second half of the film, muffled by a musical score of melancholy and concern, as if Taylor was worried about how his characters and his reputation would end up.
Regardless, the movie manages to keep you in its embrace, no doubt due to the seasoned abilities of Holm. Capable of portraying anything from an android in Alien to a reclusive Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings, he’s more than able to flesh out and reinvent an emperor, with the talents of Danish actress Iben Hjejle (High Fidelity) as Pumpkin, highlighting his emotional processing with a light but substantial touch.
The most interesting aspect of the film revolves around delusions of grandeur, complicated by the fact that they aren’t delusions at all. But truth in the wrong time and place can be as lethal as a gun to the head. And clothes may make the man, but context makes or breaks the emperor.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.