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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Jefferson in Paris" is a truly confounding film. It presents Thomas
Jefferson (Nick Nolte) in the most unflattering light possible, painting him
as a liar, racist and pedophile, yet offers not a shred of condemnation for
those sins. This is the way he was, the film seems to say. End of sentence,
end of movie, the door's behind you.
After arriving in Paris with his daughter Patsy (Gwenyth Paltrow), Jefferson proceeds to win the heart of Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife of a homosexual English painter (the criminally underused Simon Callow). A turn of events sends Maria to England, however, and Jefferson proceeds to forget her with astonishing speed for a man who, mere minutes of screen time before, was asking her to live with him in America.
He's been bewitched, you see, by Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton), one of his slaves just arrived from America. Just why he's bewitched is hard to tell--although Sally is undeniably beautiful, she acts like a simple-minded child in front of Jefferson. When she isn't telling ghost stories in exaggerated "darky" speech patterns, she's slinking around his bedroom, practically oozing lust for her distinguished massa.
If her behavior is an attempt to excuse Jefferson's, it doesn't work. Jefferson damns himself further when Maria, tired of waiting for his letters, travels from England to see him. I've not changed toward you, he insists, offering weak excuses for not writing. To her credit, Maria sees through his brazen lies immediately. When Sally appears, and she and Jefferson flirt openly (and cruelly, to my mind) in Maria's very presence, the illusion falls apart completely.
No one today believes that Jefferson, Washington and the rest were utter paragons of virtue and morality. Yet, are we supposed to believe that the learned, distinguished Jefferson would be attracted to Sally, a woman whose most intelligent conversation is about how "massa's Frenchie friends don' unnastan' aw corn" and who rubs herself against his front as she passes, right before Maria's eyes?
Even if we let that slide, it's followed by the horrifying revelation that Sally was only 15 when this affair took place (Jefferson was 41). Strangely, this fact comes out only toward the very end, when Sally's brother James is understandbly furious at her blase announcement that she is carrying Jefferson's child.
Jefferson is equally blase when told that Sally is carrying his child, and patronizingly tells her that she'd be far better off under his protection than free and living in France with her brother. But, he promises, I'll free her when I die and our children (including any more that come, Jefferson says, in a chilling declaration of Sally as *his*) when they reach 21. Oh thank you, massa, you feel like telling the screen. Big deal.
The worst scene is still to come, however, involving Jefferson's daughter Patsy. She is already angry at him, first for breaking his vow, made to her mother on her deathbed, not to marry again. (Obviously the woman wasn't just talking about matrimony.) Jefferson has also refused to allow Patsy to become a nun as she wishes, despite earlier moralizing about freedom of religion (that seems to mean freedom to agree with him).
Having promised Sally and her brother their freedom, Jefferson calls in Patsy to witness the bargain and promise to fulfill it should anything happen to him. Sally's brother blurts out the impending birth of the child, and Jefferson asks, "do you swear?" Paltrow's performance in this scene is brilliant, although she has almost nothing to say. Her face nearly contorts in agonizing pain at this revelation, yet she controls her grief and whispers yes.
If anything, and the filmmakers could have had something if they'd emphasized this point more, "Jefferson in Paris" is an indication of the status of woman in the late 18th century, viewed even by men like Jefferson as attractive property, pleasing but without true intellect or souls. We see Jefferson shed a few tears over a letter from Maria, obviously telling him where to get off, but he's soon laughing away at a wild dance from Sally, complete with tossed hair and heaving bosom.
I don't know whether this is an accurate portrait of Jefferson or not. I don't care to watch it, however, just for the sake of watching it. This Jefferson is no hero or even an anti-hero. He's a selfish, lying child-molestor--and one who gets away with it--not the kind of man I want to see a movie about.
...and the old one collapsing.How tempting!Jefferson,who epitomizes
democracy and freedom visiting the old wreck,France on the eve of
Ivory's precedent works were masterpieces (Howards end and remnants of the day)but they took place in England and they were not really historical,even if "remnants" made a fine blend of the historical background with the storybook elements.When it comes to history,and mainly French history,all we get here is a full load of clichés:Marie-Antoinette, playing with her flock of sheep,Doctor Guillotin,showing his new machine (he used to say that the condemned person could feel a nice fresh sensation before dying!),La Fayette and his wife Adrienne,and of course,the de rigueur lines (c'est une révolte?Non sire,c'est une révolution").The only daring gesture,so to speak,is the puppet theater,but even that was already in Ettore Scola's "la nuit de Varennes",(1982)with much more finesse,at that.A lot of French actors appear,which is the least Ivory could do but they are not always well cast:Michel Lonsdale is a very competent one,but he's too old to be a credible king (64 when Louis XVI was about 30!)Charlotte de Turckheim is an ugly Marie-Antoinette and some scenes in which she appears ,probably influenced by "Fellini-Casanova" (1977),do not help. This is Jean-Pierre Aumont's farewell to the screen (he was in Carné's "hotel du nord" in 1938!)in a very small part:I thought he was playing Mirabeau,but actually it's an obscure D'Hancarville.Lambert Wilson ,on the other hand,is a good choice for La Fayette,but h,most of the time,he's reduced to a walk-on.
As for the American side of the story,of course,Ivory focuses on slavery,and deservedly so.The French cannot understand that a country so in love with freedom could approve of such a thing.But it finally boils down to Nolte-and-black babe affair and it's overlong and tedious.The first scene between Jefferson and the abbess promised great things.But it's a disappointment when they meet again towards the end.
All in all,this is a lavish production,which is sometimes entertaining,but which lacks epic strength and has missed its date with
I really enjoyed this movie as it is a retelling of a history of a man
I knew little about.
The scenery and makeup was just about spot on and captured the period perfectly.
The script helped to tell the tale of an American who went along with slavery but away from America loosened his grip and treated his slaves as they should be treated, as people.
That said his sexual relationship with a teenage black girl slave shows the hypocrisy of the man. Although the movie does not go into gratuitous detail or unnecessary sexy scenes, in fact the only sexual scene is one involving rather obscene puppets that were popular at the time. Thandie Newton is outstanding in this movie and although she does not appear until half way through she lights up every scene she is in.
So a movie well worth a watch and one I would watch again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Amazingly, several reviewers have apparently found that this marvelous 1995 film just could not meet their evidently peculiar standards or expectations. It boggles the mind and defies comprehension to consider the sort of niggling, whining, nagging, crabbed sort of critic that could, somehow and beyond all belief, manage to find serious error, or in fact any error, in this outstanding and beautiful film, shot on location in Paris with many scenes filmed in the palace of Versailles. One has to wonder: if this movie doesn't do it for them---what sort of film it is that appeals to this class of critic? Perhaps if the movie had included a few car explosions it might have pleased better these silly persons. The film chronicles the years 1784-89, when Jefferson served as Minister to the Parisian royal court for the fledgling US Congress; that is, in the period before and during the passage of the United States federal constitution, Jefferson being by then a world-renowned political celebrity. This is a historical drama of pitched and immense interest, presenting with great skill and art the sad and terrible racial politics of colonial America as presented through the fascinating personage of Thomas Jefferson, and his entourage of slaves---slaves now (temporarily) liberated in the environs of pre-revolutionary Paris. Conflicts ensue between Jefferson as Slave Master and his slaves, as the inevitable return to Monticello Plantation, which figures here almost as powerfully as it did for Jefferson himself, looms always ahead. Nick Nolte, an inspired if perhaps controversial and unexpected choice for the difficult role, portrays Jefferson's genius, complexities and faults with a fine and austere dignity and grace. The outstanding cast includes James Earl Jones; a young Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson's conflicted daughter Patsy; and a young Thandie Newton as Jefferson's paramour-slave-concubine Sally Hemings. With the imperial Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as background, and featuring the Marquis de Lafayette, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, Jefferson's beautiful Parisian lover Maria Cosway, and the brewing Terror of the French Revolution, this film is a true and unique, classy feast for the eyes and mind---for viewers of elevated taste and learning only; cretins and historical ignoramuses should seek their entertainment elsewhere.
I've enjoyed several earlier Merchant-Ivory films very much: Remains of the Day, Howard's End, Maurice. But this one, though it has all the same basic ingredients - director, script writer - left me flat. It moved far too slowly, and never caught me up in Jefferson the man - though I have always found Jefferson very interesting. We never see any conflict in Jefferson between his supposed vows to stay faithful to his first, deceased wife and then his feelings for either Maria Cosway or Sally Hemmings. Indeed, we really get very little sense of his feelings for Hemmings at all, and certainly they would have been complex. Nor do we ever learn why Jefferson's older daughter wants to convert to Catholicism - that, too, given her upbringing, would have caused conflicting emotions. There is also very little connect between Jefferson and the Revolution getting underway. The costumes and sets are all very beautiful, of course, and no doubt very well-researched. But I got no sense of Jefferson from this movie. (I leave to one side the issue of whether Jefferson did actually father Hemmings' children; this isn't a documentary, so that's not relevant.)
It is documented that John Adams, second President to the United States, loathed Parisian excess and found the endless gossip, parading, and parties to be a bore. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, it is reported, liked Paris much better, and had a reputation of being more of a dandy than is portrayed in this film. Not only is 35% or more of the movie's dialogue in untranslated French, that is, without subtitle either, but the endless tedium of the suffocating excesses of 17th century France are too accutely conveyed. I found Nick Nolte uncompelling and Gwynneth Paltrow's performance doesn't seem like it was fully captured, somehow. The costuming is beautiful and particular attention seems to have been invested in hair and wig styling history. As far as the story goes, though, I kept wondering what Jefferson saw in either his European love interest, or in Sally Hemmings that drove him into the arms of either of them. The accents of all the actors just don't work for me. I didn't buy it that Sally Hemmings would have such a pronounced country accent after living exclusively with Jefferson and his immediate family for such a time, if anything, she would have picked up a French lilt to her speech.
I enjoyed JEFFERSON IN Paris for the most part. The costumes, wigs and makeup were splendid, and the cast was charming.
Nick Nolte is great as Pres. Jefferson, who goes abroad to France to serve as an ambassador there. The royal family of France is hated by the commoners, who are starving and dying while they enjoy wealth and frivolous spending. These events lead to the French Revolution and, although it doesn't happen on screen, the execution of Marie Antoinette by guillotine. Interesting tidbit: the inventor of the guillotine and his mini demonstration!!!
Jefferson's daughter Patsy (impressive Gwyneth Paltrow) goes to live in a convent, and comes to love the Catholic religion. She wants to become a nun, but she wages a tug of war with her devotion to her father's every need, request, etc.
For a great amount of the film, Jefferson has an affair of sorts with a married woman named Maria Cosway (charming Greta Schacci) but after one of his daughters back home falls ill and dies, Jefferson changes in many ways. His feelings for Cosway cool off, and the appearance of his teenaged slave Sally (played flirtatiously by Thandie Newton) seems to throw his thoughts off balance.
The altercation between Patsy and Sally reaffirmed my belief that given the right material, Paltrow is a powerful actress. Her performance is subtle and latent, and that's what makes it extraordinary.
One disappointment is that the characters played by James Earl Jones and Sarah Windh are not revisited in the end sequence. I felt that some closing commentary was needed by them to give a more satisfying end to the story.
Nevertheless, an interesting mini epic. I'd give it an A-.
This film did not make too much of a splash when it was in the theatres
here after its initial release but I was fortunate to watch it last
evening on a purchased video. I am glad that I saw this film and that,
at least for me, it did not just pass into the oblivion of movies that
do not make waves when released. I found the film absorbing; the
characters were well formed-Nolte particularly was out of the
stereotyped roles he is usually landed with and Scacchi played her role
to her usual excellence. The stars, however, where Sally and her
brother who stole the show from these aforementioned veterans. They
nuanced their roles perfectly and brought substance to the many layers
of history and social maneuvering that was so much a part of this
This was not a lazy persons afternoon time filler. This film demands attention from the viewer because those many layers must be watched carefully or else the whole film loses its continuity. The story is composed of many distinct pieces forming, not only Jefferson's domestic concerns but also the historical whirlwind of this convulsive period in French history. I thought James Ivory did a marvelous job of stitching together the many facets of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's insightful script. This was a momentous period and I do not believe the script was too complex-anything less would not have done justice to this complexity, interest and beauty of this turbulent period in history.
I believe the movie works on many levels and I am hugely happy that even late I was able to see this great film.
The names of Merchant and Ivory on a film serves as both a promise and a warning to audiences. The promise is one of lavish production values, superb craftsmanship, and acting of the highest order. Be warned, however, that no matter the talent involved, a Merchant-Ivory production can also be a major snooze. The life of a butler is not terribly eventful, a point that "Remains of the Day" illustrated in a surprisingly interesting way. The life of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, should warrant a film more interesting than "Jefferson in Paris," but outside of the costume and set design, the film is strangely empty, never once generating any interest or even a hint of life. Nick Nolte, woefully miscast in the lead, looks as if he were about to be put on display in Madame Tussaud's wax museum. A major disappointment.
I looked forward to spending part of my Independence Day weekend watching a good film about Jefferson. This film was not it. It was rather long, drawn out, dull and unbalanced. Too much time was spent exploring Jefferson's relationship with Cosway and not enough time was spent on his relationship with Sally Hemmings. The lady who played Sally, Thandie Newton, was absolutely awful. Her acting was so bad it was like watching an A1 airhead trying to recite Shakespeare. Her constant whining voice grated the nerves! Nolte's accent made Jefferson sound like an ignorant man, rather than a genius. Jefferson's relationship with his daughters and their feelings on slavery was also underdeveloped, yet his eldest daughter's rebellion (Patsy)is a key event late in the film. The film was too long and the script lacked energy and excitement. On the positive side, the costumes were quite beautiful, and Greta Scacchi played the part of Cosway well. If you want to watch a film about the revolutionary era and/or Jefferson, then watch 1776, it's much better than Jefferson in Paris.
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