Doodad Kind of Town


Hidden Treasures and Guilty Pleasures; "The Emperor’s New Clothes"
September 14, 2008, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is the first of what I hope will be a recurring series of posts highlighting movies I like very much, but that aren’t quite in the mainstream. They’re not necessarily unknown or even obscure, but neither are they widely seen or screened. Most pop up on cable from time to time, but usually on an early weekday morning or in the middle of the night. All are available on DVD.

Some of these films are, indeed, guilty pleasures; I’d be hard-pressed to defend them as quality cinema, but I enjoy them anyway. And some are genuinely good films that may have been overlooked or under-acknowledged at the time of their initial release.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” falls into the latter group.

This delightful, dryly comic trifle was in and out of theaters (in Chicago at least) in about a week upon its initial release in 2001. Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not a retelling of the popular Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, though it is whimsical and wise in its own way. Rather it’s the kind of story that plays “what if” with actual historical events, and does so to charming effect.

“After his defeat at Waterloo, the great Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena where he died on the fifth of May, 1821… Or so the history books tell us.” (Opening title card of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”)

The film opens on St. Helena where Napoleon (Ian Holm) is dictating his military memoirs to a secretary from the relative comfort of his bath. We soon learn that the men attending Napoleon have hatched a plot to restore him to power in France. A Napoleon look-alike – a lowly galley hand named Eugene Lemorand (also played by Holm) will take Napoleon’s place in England. Meanwhile the Emperor – disguised as Lemorand and working as a galley hand – will return by ship to France. Once it’s confirmed that the former emperor is safely ensconced in Paris, Lemorand will announce to his English captors that he is an impersonator, and Napoleon will be made Emperor once more.

Well, those are the plans, anyway. And we all know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

Napoleon eventually makes it to Paris, although his route proves more circuitous than originally planned. (An unexpected detour lands him in Waterloo for a night, where he discovers, to his great dismay, that the battlefield of his inglorious defeat has been turned into a tourist attraction, complete with vendor stalls full of tacky souvenirs. He’s disgruntled to find himself sleeping in a bed beneath a placard reading “The Emperor Napoleon slept here.”

After finally arriving in Paris, Napoleon is delivered to the home of a former soldier to await the unmasking of the impostor in exile. However, he arrives to find the soldier recently deceased and his young widow (Iben Hbjele) deeply in mourning and just barely eking out a living by selling melons from a push cart. She has one boarder, a doctor (Tim McInnerny) who hovers around her just a bit too solicitously. Out of his element in this humble setting, Napoleon resorts to his customary imperious behavior, demanding accommodations and care. This, understandably, doesn’t sit well with Pumpkin (yes, that’s her name – is it because she sells produce?), who knows him only as a soldier from her late husband’s regiment.

In England, meanwhile, the real Lemorand is enjoying his masquerade far too much to come clean, despite repeated, angry entreaties by his co-conspirators to do so. He fails to capture the emperor’s mannerisms (given lessons in how to walk like Napoleon, his instructor bellows “You’re waddling again! Never waddle!”) But while Lemorand may not walk the walk, he convincingly talks the talk. Soon he’s barking orders at underlings, continuing the emperor’s bathtime narration of his ‘memoirs’ (now focusing on sexual – rather than military- conquests) and lapping up enormous quantities of fine food and wine. There’s no way he’s giving up this gig.

Back in Paris, the real Napoleon gets increasingly impatient. Eager to exercise a little authority, he organizes Pumpkin and her fellow merchants into a new distribution scheme that sends their fruit carts away from the central marketplace and into the better neighborhoods of Paris. Soon melon slices become the favored summer treat of fashionable Parisians, and Pumpkin is able to trade poverty for prosperity. Not surprisingly, her once chilly relationship with the man she knows only as “Eugene” begins to thaw.

There’s more of course, but I’m not giving it away. This is a movie you should for yourself.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is humorous and melancholy by turns. Its comic scenes are droll and dry, never laugh-out-loud funny, but delightful nonetheless. Its darker scenes are muted – never too dark – but used effectively throughout to raise the dramatic stakes. And the shifts in tone are not wobbly or forced.

It’s also a beautiful film to look at, with nearly every shot composed in an elegant, painterly fashion. You want to freeze the frame from time and time and just look at the pictures. Yet the film doesn’t have the heavy, overstuffed feeling of a typical period piece; it hasn’t been costumed and art-directed to death. That’s undoubtedly a reflection of a limited production budget, but it also gives the film and its characters a welcome bit of room to breathe.

Holm’s Napoleon is ultimately a bit cuddlier than the real man probably was, although his occasional flashes of temper are properly startling. Hbjele (best known to American audiences as John’s Cusack’s estranged girlfriend in “High Fidelity”) is a worthy foil for Holm, grounded and even-tempered where he is mercurial. McInnerny – a wonderful British actor who, to my mind, is under-recognized on this side of the Atlantic – gives a smart, subtle performance. Witness the scene where Hbjele rejects his awkward marriage proposal: the carefully controlled play of emotions on McInnerny’s face as he struggles to downplay his outsized hope, then hide his disappointment, gives a sympathetic moment to a character who doesn’t otherwise engage our sympathies.

Director Alan Taylor is an American best known for his work on television series such as “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” I’m not sure how he got this gig (produced by Britain’s Channel Four and shot at Cinecitta Studios in Italy) but I wish he’d get more like it. We could use more historical films with this one’s lightness and quiet charms.

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