the boss: Holm in The Emperors New Clothes.
By Ann Morrow
Emperor’s New Clothes
by Alan Taylor
Emperor’s New Clothes is a “What if?” movie, as in: “What
if Emperor Napoleon did not die in exile on St. Helena, but
escaped and lived many years longer?” And the answer, according
to this clever, witty, and movingly rueful film, is he’d have
had a lot of adjusting to do. For one thing, he wouldn’t have
been able to boss around the populace of Europe. And he’d
have had to lose that preposterous hat.
Adapted with verve from a novel by Simon Leys, the film
meets up with Napoleon (Ian Holm) six years into his imprisonment.
Bored and humiliated, the deposed monarch goes along with
the audacious scheme of his loyal retinue: To swap the emperor
with a lookalike deckhand from the supply ship, who will pose
as Napoleon while the real emperor sails to Paris, where,
according to his hilariously out-of-touch aide-de-camp (Hugh
Bonneville), “the people of France” will restore him to the
throne. Napoleon isn’t too thrilled with his imposter, an
uncouth swabbie named Eugene (also played by Holm). And once
onboard the merchant ship, the brilliant military strategist
is royally put out when things don’t go according to plan,
starting with a change in itinerary that deposits him in Belgium.
For Eugene, kingly imprisonment on St. Helena is hog heaven,
especially the truffles and claret. The film doesn’t waste
time on the mechanics of training the deckhand to act like
an emperor, and not much is needed. Eugene takes to the role
with conniving relish, and is rather loath to give it up when
the time comes to expose the switcheroo. Holm’s versatility
is an astounding delight in both roles (which isn’t surprising,
considering his recent successes with characters as dissimilar
as Jack the Ripper and Bilbo Baggins), and he’s amusingly
convincing as both the opportunistic imposter and the imperious
Bonaparte. It’s likely that this whimsical historical fantasia
would’ve evaporated with anyone else in the leads, especially
when the height-challenged autocrat must stand down younger
and taller adversaries.
His legions of conspiratorial supporters failing to materialize—except
for a couple of veterans living in the past—Napoleon travels
as a vagrant, coming into contact with his legacy as “the
monster of Europe,” and catching on to his current irrelevance.
Waterloo, he discovers, has been turned into a tourist attraction.
Director Alan Taylor, the crown prince of HBO (The Sopranos,
Sex and the City) knows his comedy, staging Napoleon’s
travails as wryly comic vignettes. But more impressive is
how he tailors each scenario to get beyond the cliches of
the character: Napoleon is no longer the man he once was,
a realization he confronts with steely self-awareness as well
as comic pomposity.
This is a story not of great expectations, but of changed
expectations. In Paris, no one believes Napoleon is Napoleon,
including Pumpkin (Iben Hjejele), the bankrupt young widow
he takes refuge with. Falling under the spell of his commanding
charisma, she takes him to her bed, and soon enough, he is
applying his leadership skills to the local melon market,
rousing the villagers with a militarily precise sales campaign—at
which point the audience may want to cheer as heartily as
Emperor’s New Clothes loses some of its droll enchantment
while Napoleon waits on destiny in domestic contentment. And
the scene in a madhouse full of patients suffering from Napoleon
complex is a depressing misstep; much more effective are the
brief glimpses of the high cost of empire on the working class.
But thanks to Holm’s full-blooded portrayals (along with Rachel
Portman’s jaunty score and the vibrantly historical production),
the film ends on a note of wise and tempered triumph.
Directed by Lorene Machado
Margaret Cho, the comedienne who turned her failed experiences
with Hollywood into inventive comic material in I’m the
One That I Want, has evolved into the liberated clown
princess of sex. In this, her latest concert film, she proves
to be as fearless as she is funny.
As the performance took place in November of last year, Cho
necessarily begins with a mention of the events of Sept. 11.
She starts with appropriate solemnity, and then slips into
a tone of voice that can be described only as “celebrity seriousness.”
The characterization is perfect. The audience is taken in
as she talks about visiting Ground Zero, right up to the payoff—when
she says she’s been doing her part by “giving blow jobs to
rescue workers every day.”
This also sets the stage for much of the performance. Cho
is exuberantly sexually explicit. She talks about sex with
tiny lesbians, sex while zippered up in leather gear in an
S&M club, and sex while watching porn with an ex-boyfriend
on the living room floor. If she isn’t talking about sex,
she’s talking about matters involving sexual prefences (her
father’s gay friend), or awkward bodily functions (colonics,
menstruation). None of this seems raunchy. Cho’s distinctly
distanced take on sex, and her ability to laugh at anything
related to it, is disarming and liberating.
Cho is at her most memorable when portraying her mother. This
is not necessarily because the material is funnier, but because
her characterization is vivid and hilarious. These bits take
up comparatively few minutes of screen time, but they’re brilliant.
The direction, by Lorene Machado, is mostly unobtrusive. In
a concert film, this is the height of virtue. Most of Cho’s
physical comedy takes place on her face; there’s a jarring
moment when the director zooms in on her hands, and you realize
that Cho is getting her zingers across with just her mug and
voice. That Machado doesn’t distract from this—or draw too
much attention to it—is an example of artistic common sense.
The only drawbacks to the film are the prologue and epilogue
segments. There are interviews with concertgoers before and
after the show, comments from Cho’s parents, and reflective
musings from the comedienne herself. The fans all pretty much
agree that Cho is the most wonderful personality on the planet.
Her parents think she’s wonderful. Cho gratefully appreciates
how delightful everyone finds her. On the one hand, showing
the diversity of the audience is an interesting, worthwhile
strategy. On the other hand, the fulsome praise might lead
one to think that Cho is, deep down, just another very needy
comic. After 90 minutes of inventive comedy, this revelation
is not the way to end the film.