I had read an interesting book by Olivier Bernier about life in 18th century cities: life in Naples, in Paris, & in Philadelphia …
Anthony Chase [first script writer] had grown up partly in France and loved being there doing research, & was interested in Jefferson, & in the whole Sally Hemings side of things …
the enlightened nobles … shown at a dinner party where everyone is talking about liberty and freedom … they of course were the very ones who would soon be going to the guillotine … James Ivory in conversation with Robert Emmet Long
Dear friends and readers,
I’m just now reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, spurred thereto by my return to Patsy Jefferson (via Cynthia Kierner) and I thought what better could I do to enjoy myself and maybe get some insights through visual recreation than watch Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s 1995 film of Jefferson in Paris. As it happens my small journey seems timely since a new book castigating Jefferson I’m told (and for good measure attacking Annette G-R) is making waves, so I’d like to recommend this film and add a qualifying voice to the vehement condemnations I’ve come across here on the Net in the last few days.
What the three (Jhabvala worked on Chase’s script) mean to do is create a sense of Jefferson’s world — he, the people in this world, their norms, clothes, things – entering into and coping with the Paris world of just before the revolution (1788) into just before the terror — in the film Jefferson leaves just around the time things you begin to see the first glimpses of the understandable anger, rage, despair while idealism is still holding its own. Jefferson and Patsy and James arrive around 1783 and, now with Sally and Polly, depart 1789. It’s an able and effective creation of atmosphere, the place, Talleyrand’s sweet time crumbling under the first changes long overdue; with more or less accuracy. We see a slice of a performance of a play really done then, watch Maria Cosway seem to play a contemporary piece on a harp, several historical figures are presented (the king, queen, Lafayette, Mesmer, Guillotin)
There’s also an attempt at a suggestive portrait of Jefferson, somewhat idealized, but not altogether, for he’s the master. The personality is lightly sketched and for the most part kept at a distance, shown in larger social scenes or acting out one-on-one, not alone, not in meditation (there’s no voice over). He’s self-absorbed, self-centered but means well to others too. The credits show the contraption Jefferson invented and used to make copies of his letters; we see him writing with one hand and the other pen imitating the script.
It’s also a self-conscious movie about its art. Scenes recall paintings, some imitate type scenes from other movies; the characters discuss art & make music, are surrounded by art and music.
The film itself is structured as a flashback, a story told by Madison Hemings (James Earl Jones) to a reporter come to visit Madison and his wife in a cabin-house down south, the slightly incredulous reporter astonished to hear Madison talk of Jefferson as Madison’s father. At some point during the film we return to this cabin, and we come back at the very end.
Madison’s wife is fingering a shoe buckle and that fades into Jefferson’s shoes and buckles climbing the stairs to his first encounter with king and court. Switch to Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) playing piano intensely as if her life depended on it, her father, Jefferson joining her with his violin, and then James, the black half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, in the courtyard struggling with the luggage. The story goes through this first coming to Paris, Jefferson’s putting Patsy in the convent, his meeting with Maria Cosway, their romance, then the reported death of Lucy at home, so the bringing of Jefferson’s other daughter to Paris with her servant, Sally; the gradual attraction of Jefferson to Sally while the romance of Maria Cosway fades (partly because her husband takes her away), and then the clinching moment of the film (very late): Jefferson takes a willing Sally to bed with him. This is tactful: they do not show us the older white man going to bed with this young black girl.
This scene is archetypal for heterosexual films: in Poldark the scene that lead into the master, Ross, going to bed with his servant, Demelza, shows her similarly at his feet, taking off his boots
Patsy is in the house sufficiently to become aware of this liaison and becomes ugly to Sally, flees to the idea she wants to be a nun. Maria returns from London, now longing for an affair but it’s too late. She sees right away what is happening between Jefferson and Sally and she’s out in the cold, not needed.
The film climaxes in James’s discovery of his sister’s pregnancy, indignation, and the confrontation of James (Sally by his side) with Jefferson, where James demands to be let free and to be allowed to stay in Paris. Jefferson says how will you live, you have no money, no connections, I’ll be gone. Jefferson offers James freedom in a couple of years, and Sally upon his death and all the children she may have. Jefferson leads Patsy into the room and the solemn promises are made. Then a scene leaving the beautiful mansion fades into the reporter leaving Madison Hemings’s cabin.
There are separate threads running through. Jefferson’s life as a diplomat: at court, with other Enlightenment figures at a rococo park scene redolent of Watteau’s Embarkation either to and from Cythera.
A group of men contemplating the Declaration of Independence (as Jefferson explains why it omits black people and allows for slavery); scenes of abysmal poverty in the streets, mob action becoming riot, of burning effigies of people, of a head on a pike, of a man hung, another and a house set on fire.
The saddest pictures are of Patsy: in this surely M-I-J have in mind Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse
The Maria subsection is intertwined with her visiting Patsy, sympathizing with her, and when after Patsy witnesses the door closing on Jefferson and Sally one night, and Patsy seems to decide to become Roman Catholic, Jefferson taking his girl from the convent, indignant. The most powerful scene after Jefferson’s first encounter with Sally in his bedroom is his and Patsy’s final promise to James and Sally Hemings.
Visually beautiful and playful, delicately atmospheric with real factual famous events put before us (the constructed balloon rising over Paris), it’s very much a woman’s art film. Jhabvala’s name is unusually prominently displayed and maybe she was more central. We have so many women’s scenes: scenes of Paltrow as Patsy and other apparently adolescent girls as girls in the convent together; scenes of Newton as Sally playing with Polly; of Scacchi as Maria talking with Paltrow as Patsy and telling of her she once wanted to be nun; scenes of the groups in an artificial landscape by a palace, of them eating, playing table games, very much Rococo genre painting. A strong scene that may not have occurred but something like it — the mother superior’s defense of her convent that she did not try to make Patsy want to be a nun. The mirror type scene of women’s films (the woman looks at herself in the mirror) is left out as this is not a movie about making a face to meet the faces you need to, but we have (Scacchi) writing letters, women in the garden, sleeping with dreams, so many in super-abundant hair-does with either ribbons or hats threaded into the wig. Now Maria, now Patsy submitting to having her hair done, now Sally getting material for a new dress and then putting it on. Sally was not dressed in hand-me-downs, and like James, got a salary over and above her already paid lodging, food, necessities bills. Then the girls getting dresses, fingering the material, men too. In the opening and closing scenes of the reporter, Madison’s wife is central with her tea and talk.
The coming revolution is right there with us: as in this hanging and burning of a straw figure:
On line I’m startled by the vehemence of the condemnations of Jefferson, often by politically conservative people. You’d think he was the only man not to have freed his slaves after he suggested he felt slavery was wrong. True he did not free Sally Hemings after he died, but she has no income and to enable her to live as if she were free in Charlottesville, she is left as Martha’s charge and since Martha was her owner, Martha paid her bills. The same was done for another black women slave. Jefferson paid the main bills for James, Robert and Martin (Sally’s brothers, his wife’s half-brothers) until they were freed; all was “found’ for them and the salaries he gave them were disposable income.
I am wondering if people kick Jefferson this way because they can. They sense something very vulnerable about the man. For example, his inability to cope with the military, the way he failed to call out the Virginia local militia during the revolution and then had to flee from place to place and partly rely on Martin to keep the house going. Or the way he wanted utterly to downsize the navy and failed. Conservatives might just hate him because he lived in intimacy with this black family all his life. It was highly unusual the way Jefferson took Sally to DC, kept her with him, really a substitute wife.
James had the equivalent for someone in his position of the grand tour. His eyes were opened, his experience enormously widened. His letters of introduction were the apprentice papers that took him to several palaces and several chief French chiefs. He had freedom of movement; Jefferson paid for “all found” (daily food, his lodging in Hotel of course, his clothes). The rest was his. We see this. Sally does seem to have gotten an allowance — like James. So true disposable income. When Jefferson did not need her, she was free wandered in the house and grounds. Oral tradition in Hemings family was she talked of Paris to her dying day; made a huge impression, perhaps like Jefferson himself a very happy time for her. We may even imagine them coming together as presented in the film. A May/December relationship between Jefferson and Sally emerges, with her amusing him (the wonderful dance in the film) and him mesmerizing her (Nolte is more comfortable being sexy with Sally than distantly debonair with Maria). In life, from his letters Jefferson says he did not let anyone get close to him whom he did not value highly. So we may take it he did Sally — at least eventually.
Jefferson in Paris was made right after Howard’s End, and partly during the filming of The Remains of the Day, two of the team’s masterpieces. This lacks the directness of those two, but it belongs to them as a family of films which includes The City of Your Final Destination. Eighteenth century people are in for a treat, historical film people, those who want to dwell in a world of civility, pleasure, aimless (so to speak) aspiration perpetually half-thwarted and half-fulfilled.
Of the books on the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films, for Jefferson in Paris, see James Ivory in Conversation, by Robert Emmet Long, foreword Janet Maslin.