Jefferson in Paris, a lavish but, alas, utterly ridiculous production from Merchant Ivory stars Nick Nolte as the great historical American statesman. It's about his years in Paris (1784 to 1789) as American ambassador before he became President. With the French Revolution bubbling around Jefferson, and with various matters churning in his personal life, we are presumably meant to see this as a powerful, formative period in his biography. But this is such a dreary, dithery and unfocused movie, it's hard to know exactly what it's about.
It comes on like a film made for the classroom, a living history textbook film – and I mean that in the worst way possible. It's one of those epic, stately productions that revisit, in a very classical and calm manner, great tumultuous moments of change in world history. You can almost see Ivory directing the film as if he's at the blackboard with a ruler, pointing to the various maps, dates and historical personae. It's all such mummified, bloodless stuff.
Beyond their resolutely boring pedagogical qualities, there is something I find very bizarre about such movies. They unfailingly alight upon big issues that absolutely no one today could get upset about. Every contentious, controversial issue raised has been well and truly settled at least a few hundred years ago. What, really, is the point of making a film that tells us that, once upon a time, slavery was a bad thing, or that missionaries were sometimes nasty colonialists, or that the people were once crushed by wicked aristocracies? Of course, history and its lessons should matter vitally to us. But when such recreations have no tie to the present, no resonance at all, there is precious little to connect them to the viewer. They become dead history lessons. It's the kind of thing Bruce Beresford does often, for instance in Black Robe (1991).
Sometimes in Jefferson in Paris, as in several other Ivory movies, you get the feeling that he is trying to saddle up to some of the more pressing concerns of the present day. Yet this, too, tends to be a didactic, heavy-handed business. Often the effort results in a sort of bizarre historical distortion or over-compensation. Ivory knows that today we are all consumed with winning greater rights for women, or oppressed ethnic communities. So he makes damn sure that every woman, every black, every peasant who flits through the frame here is a true pre-feminist, pre-revolutionary, pre-multicultural free spirit, unburdened and unwarped by social conditioning.
Jefferson in Paris tries to invent some fancy interrelation between the personal and political realms of Jefferson's life. The French revolution, with its guillotining of rebels and bloody dispatching of the aristocracy, happens mainly off-screen. The real revolution is going on, as far as Jefferson himself is concerned, in his heart, and in his bed.
We observe Jefferson's ties to three women. There's his nervy daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom he puts in a convent – there's something a bit unnerving, an incestuous undertone, in their desperate, hysterical conversations. Then there's his sophisticated free-spirit companion Maria, played with reasonable dignity by Greta Scacchi: he keeps her waiting, and frustrates her boundless desire. And lastly there's Jefferson's lusty black maid Sally (Thandie Newton), with whom he has carnal relations. I think it's this last tryst that turns Jeff around on the race question, although you would hardly know it from the film.
Many filmgoers are quite unaware that, decades ago, Ivory was renowned for black, satirical comedies with a cruel and eccentric streak, such as The Wild Party (1975). It is really only after Heat and Dust (1983) that the tasteful, middlebrow Merchant Ivory trademark style came into being. There are fleeting moments in Jefferson in Paris – glimpses of the absurd pomposity of the French court, vignettes of the hypnotist Mesmer and a giggly Marie Antoinette – that prompt one to recall this earlier work. The combination here of droll observation with an almost perverse fascination with the social oddities of another time reveals Ivory's secret kinship with Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract, 1982) – and also Richard Lester's forgotten take on The Three Musketeers (1974).
Such moments of interest, however, are mere pinpricks on the surface of this dull, bloated, lifeless film. The acting is wildly uneven, swinging from excellent to execrable. Nolte has never looked so constrained; he seems to be having no fun at all as Jefferson. The only scenes that work in many a Merchant Ivory film – and fortunately the previous one, The Remains of the Day (1993), had a high number of them – occur when the image literally darkens, and the topics of death or sexual repression suddenly, scarily enter the picture. There is a melancholic tragedian somewhere inside James Ivory. Maybe he wishes that he'd snaffled The Age of Innocence (1993) before Martin Scorsese did.
© Adrian Martin October 1995