Monday, May 23, 2011

New on Blu: "Papillon"

Dega: “You think it will work?”
Papillon: “Does it matter?”

Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon is a gripping, entertaining picture, though it is nearly toppled by the heavy burden of its overworked ambitions. Schaffner, one of the skilled directors of live teleplays during that medium’s “golden age,” was boosted into the front ranks of Hollywood craftsman with the smash success of his 1968 film Planet of the Apes; he had another giant hit—and an Oscar-winning critical success—with 1970’s Patton. Papillon, for all of its virtues (and there are many), often feels like Schaffner is trying (and straining) to top himself. Having reinvented himself as a maker of epics, he makes Papillon one—whether it should be or not.

The film is based on the memoir of Henri Charriére, the French fugitive (wrongly accused, or so he claims) who made several escape attempts from seemingly impenetrable prisons. Schaffner thankfully gets right down to business, finding Charriére (nicknamed Papillon and played by Steve McQueen) with assorted other felons on a ship bound for South America, where he meets counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). They don’t become friends, not exactly. Due to his wealth, Dega is a target, so he and Papillon strike up a business arrangement: in exchange for protection, Dega will bankroll Papillon’s escape once they reach their destination. “I have no intention of even attempting to escape, ever,” Dega announces. Uh huh, we all say.

They soon arrive at the penal colony of French Guyana—“from which there is no escape!” a muckety-muck intones. Papillon’s first attempt at escape fails, and he winds up in solitary confinement. That sequence showcases some of Schaffner’s tightest and most economical filmmaking: repeated shots, claustrophobic framing, minimal dialogue, and harrowing visuals (both real and imagined). Finally, eventually, he is released; one of McQueen’s most physically heart-wrenching moments in the film follows soon after, as he laps up “real soup—with meat in it” after barely surviving for months on half-rations. Once his strength is back, he immediately reaches out to Dega and begins planning his next escape.

Playing opposite each other, Hoffman and McQueen are something of a study in contrasts: the character actor and the movie star, the handsome ‘60s icon handing off to the kind of intense, chameleonic performer that will redefine the leading man. What is remarkable, in watching them work together, is how neither appears to be adopting either a right or wrong approach. Sure, one can nitpick—the Franco convict Papillon is being portrayed by McQueen, who is about as French as Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the role, in its best scenes, gives us McQueen at his essence: direct, unflappable, tough, determined. He is the title character, and the film is unquestionably his show; when the two men separate, we go with McQueen. It’s not a performance of tremendous range (when he has to play the aged Papillon in the closing scenes, he’s less than convincing), but it works. Hoffman, as expected, hides behind thick Coke-bottle glasses and a strangulated voice; as he did so often in his career, his characterization constructs barriers that seem almost explicitly designed to prohibit an emotional connection with the audience. But as in his best work, within the puncturing of those barriers lies the power of the performance, and in the duo’s final scene, it is Hoffman’s character that finds the emotional truth between them.

There are other actors, but the film is essentially a two-hander; in spite of its expansive running time (a too-bulky 150 minutes), all of the other characters—even seemingly important ones, like the third man in their most convoluted escape—remain ciphers. Schaffner’s direction is occasionally ingenious; the way he uses an energetic orchestral performance as musical counterpoint to the intensity of the escape is clever, and the unexpected leap in the narrative’s time frame late in the film is pretty daring. But one wonders what kind of film Papillon would have been in the hands of a more nimble director—a Sidney Lumet, say, or a John Frankenheimer. It is, without question, too damn long; the pace drags in some early scenes, and he indulges in decidedly hokey interlude with a topless caregiving native girl when our thoughts are elsewhere (hey Steve, how’s about checkin’ in on your buddies?). The production was an expensive one; Schaffner presumably wanted to take full advantage of his lush locations and give his studio bosses full bang for the buck. But the film’s best moments are its small ones.

Director Schaffner’s epic ambitions occasionally put a drag on Papillon, but the film maintains its considerable power to thrill and move audiences. McQueen and Hoffman make an odd but effective pairing, and the picture’s sweaty, intense storytelling and defiant message are as compelling as ever.

"Papillon" is available now on DVD; it makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, May 24th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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