Jefferson In Paris

600full-jefferson-in-paris-poster
Released in 1995 during a particularly lush output from Merchant Ivory Productions, “Jefferson In Paris” is a study in ‘how to fit as many films as possible into one’. Indeed, the film seems to be four films in one, with each  relating only slightly to the others.
The film opens in a cabin in rural Ohio, with James Earl Jones narrating a personal history to a journalist. On the surface, this wouldn’t be an event, but as it stands, the personal history being relayed is that of Thomas Jefferson and his slave descendants, of which Jones’ character is one. The scene is brief, but seemingly sets the stage for what should be the story of how Jones and his relatives came to be. Instead, the viewer is thrust head long into a meandering historical drama about Thomas Jefferson and his time in Paris, which brings us to our ‘second film’.
Director James Ivory takes us on a well appointed, if visually staid, tour through Jefferson’s arrival in Paris, and his subsequent homesteading in a palatial manse inside the city. We meet Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Patsy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and follow them as they insert themselves into French society at every level.
Though the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris”, one would hope to find that there was more to the story than dinner parties and impromptu violin and harpsichord concerts, but our ‘second film’ takes the rather unexciting view that this aspect of Jefferson’s time in France is important to the viewer, even though not many of the motives for any of the characters’ actions are ever fully explained, or even hinted at. There is much non-captioned French dialogue, gesturing and the like, but the story is not ever really advanced by these scenes. Characters that are thinly drawn, or not drawn at all, compete for our attention with the subdued lighting and well made costumes and almost lull us into a Merchant-Ivory slumber.
The third bit of storytelling involves the oncoming French Revolution. The scenes, and that is what they are, a collection of scenes half-heartedly woven into the larger story for effect and not so subtle overtones on equality and emancipation , are such a jumbled mess, they hardly warrant mentioning, but they are distractions that serve to break up the action taking place elsewhere in the movie.
The real meat of the film is the ‘fourth film’, involving the arrival of slave Sally Heming and the youngest Jefferson daughter from Virginia.
jeffersoninparis
In an odd bit of film making, it’s the appearance of a slave character, one who should at least kind of embody the misery of her condition, that enlivens the entire production, even though she’s neither seen nor mentioned until an hour into the action. However here, Sally Heming, portrayed by the luminous Thandie Newton, seems only a slave ‘on paper’, as she flits and struts through the film with all the Southern charm of a belle awaiting her cotillion. The relationship between master and slave is one ease and harmony and when, in the final moments of the film, she is presented with the opportunity to become a free woman, she has a crisis like that of a lover who can’t fathom the thought of a break up. While the viewer may understand the difficulty of her position and the youth of the character, the film nevertheless portrays Sally as little more than a confused mistress, rather than an uneducated and exploited child/slave.
That the film insinuates it was Ms. Heming who instigated the sexual aspect of her unconscionable and utterly lopsided deal with Mr. Jefferson, is a slap in the face to almost EVERYTHING that has been reported about slavery in America. But, because the film is titled, “Jefferson in Paris” and not “Sally Heming in Paris”, we can only shake our heads and watch in disgust as the title cards roll, explaining what became of poor, little Sally and the future president.
The telling of the Jefferson/Heming relationship warrants its own film, and sadly, this is not it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s