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One of the obsessive speculations in American history is whether Thomas Jefferson, in the years before he became president, had an affair with (and fathered a child with) his 15-year-old slave Sally Hemings. JEFFERSON IN PARIS follows Jefferson to France (as the U.S. ambassador to the court of Louis XVI), following the death of his wife his friendships and flirtations with the French, his relationship with his daughters and slaves from home (especially Sally), against the backdrop of the beginning of the French Revolution. Written by
Michael C. Berch <email@example.com>
Although I have been interested in Jefferson for many years, I put off seeing this film for some reason, and only caught it recently on cable.
I give it mixed reviews, generally favorable. Ivory/Merchant have again fashioned a lavish tableau, and the sets, costumes, props, etc. are first rate.
The cast is solid. I was afraid Nolte would be a little too rough for my image of Jefferson, but that played out all right.
What made this film interesting to me was certainly not whether it was accurate in a historical sense. How could it be--not nearly enough is known of that situation. The question is whether or not the film is plausible and "honest within itself," i.e., whether we can accept the story as having something to tell us, if what is depicted is historically true or not.
To me, the movie is about freedom, and the contradictions of freedom. Jefferson, freedom's advocate, is ensnared within the institution of slavery, and that ends up torpedoing any mature romance with Maria Cosway. Jefferson is also in his own life quite rigid, pulling his own daughter back from possible conversion to Roman Catholicism. His granting of freedom to James and Sally Hemmings has limitations.
What bothered me some about the movie was its use of the backdrop of the coming French Revolution--by itself a commentary on the limitations of freedom. To the filmmakers it seems "the Terror," two or three years in the future, is the definitive statement and stage of the revolution. The movie even seems soft on the ancienne regime, which over time killed a lot more people than the Terror.
These muted investigations of freedom in the film move very slowly, but still hold interest--they are thoughtful, probing, and, to a degree, don't pass simplistic judgements on people.
Cerebral film, but then Jefferson was a cerebral guy!
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