Cinema / American stifled in Paris

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE FILM critics hold these truths to be self-evident: that all Merchant-Ivory films are created equally bad, that they are endowed by their creators with certain inalienable Faults, and that among these are Lifelessness, Liberty prints and the pursuit of Prettiness. On Merchant- Ivory's last outing, The Remains of the Day, these vices became the film's subject, in an examination of stifled Englishness, so that we had the illusion of a well-crafted film. But Jefferson in Paris (12) takes one of the most intriguing figures in US history and turns him into a waxwork. Thomas Jefferson's ambassadorship to France (1784-1789) is full of historical fascination, as the philosopher of the New World confronts the Old in the full glow of its sunset, yet out of it Merchant-Ivory has made a movie which is a scurrilous lie and an unconscionable bore.

"Tell me about America," Jefferson (Nick Nolte) is asked. "The subject," he replies, "is as vast as the country itself." The same could be said of Jefferson - architect, inventor, musician, diplomat, farmer. Yet he was an uncinematic figure, his flamboyance, even boastfulness, in print, unmatched by his staid public manner. While in France he was largely negotiating and researching. The movie plays up an affair he had with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), wife of an English painter (Simon Callow), and invents one with a 15-year-old slave girl, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). But the film's idea of romantic passion is Sally's caressing of Jefferson's shoe-buckle. Its other dramatic peak comes when Jefferson dislocates his wrist. There is, of course, ample outlet for the Ivory trade in period detail: horse-drawn carriages clopping into courtyards, as servants, bearing fire-beacons, run ahead; opulent banquets; a ballet; a ball; a seance; the first feature-film sequences shot inside the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles; and some wonderfully inept evocations of mob riots, in which a fake head is carried on a pike and hordes of extras rhubarb like crazy. Each of these set-pieces is drearier than the last. Scenes are designed to show-case esoteric historical detail rather than advance the drama. We watch a man called Dr Guillotin demonstrate at a dinner party his new invention. Such look-and-learn film-making makes for watch- and- yawn viewing.

Much of the blame lies with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's feeble script. Her attempts to convey the ferment of ideas in Paris at the Enlightenment's eclipse are desultory. And the struggle in Jeffer- son's soul between passion and responsibility is bungled. Jefferson wrote a moving letter in the form of a dialectic between his heart and head. Jhabvala massacres that masterpiece and creates a thoroughly stilted piece of dialogue, by dividing the arguments between Jefferson and Cosway, under the guise of repartee.

Jhabvala and James Ivory plod along in their usual uncinematic way, with no conception of dramatic pacing, or of story-telling through images. You can rely on Ivory to hold each scene too long, for a few moments of heavy over-emphasis. Yet when he goes for a bit of cinematic invention - as in the ludicrous fade-outs which punctuated conversations in Howards End - you wish he hadn't, as it comes over as jarringly self-conscious. When Scacchi talks of her sisters being poisoned by their nanny, a flashback deadens the story's force.

Such a screenplay would thwart any cast's effort. Nick Nolte has the right rough-hewn physique for Jefferson, but the role is so underwritten that he can convey nothing of the man's joy, either in ideas or in illicit love. Thandie Newton has the hardest job of all, animating the slave girl. She is there to be sexually exploited, even though there is no evidence - other than the libels of a disappointed rival - that Jefferson had an affair with her. It's true that she was one of Jefferson's many slaves. But the film simplifies Jefferson's complex attitude to slavery. The erasing of his assault on it in the Decl- aration of Independence is mentioned, but not the attack that survives in the document's preamble. Nor is it made clear how progressive his passion for emancipation was. His views on race were deeply conservative, but that was typical of the time. By harping on about Jefferson's slave-ownership, Ivory thinks he is being revisionist, but is merely anachronistic.

Fiddling with facts is not necessarily a bad thing, if it reveals a greater dramatic truth (as In the Name of the Father did). What is appalling about Jefferson in Paris is how little it makes out of its massive inaccuracies. Flatly written, dully photographed, clumsily edited, and an hour too long (at 140 minutes), it's one of the most boring films of recent times.

John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (15) is another of those horror movies (like Misery and The Dark Half) which delve into the murky process of writing fiction. No, it has nothing to do with Martin Amis's dentistry. It's a study of what happens when fiction overthrows reality, and who gets to decide what reality is - the sane or the mad? Sam Neill plays, with tongue in cheek, an investigator hired to track down a missing horror author, whose books have a hypnotic hold on their vast readership. The best scenes are those in which the suavely cynical Sam is slowly sucked into the fictional world, screaming denial, as he bobs between waking and nightmare. Once he's inside the whirlpool, the shocks are fairly conventional.

Silent Fall (15) marks another stage in the falling off of Bruce Beresford, who, with films such as Breaker Morant, was once a force to be reckoned with. Richard Dreyfuss bumbles through his usual shtick as a psychiatrist who has to prise the solution to a murder out of an autistic boy-witness. A promising plot rapidly degenerates into preposterousness.

Cinema details: see Review, page 90.