Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


One of the obsessive speculations in American history is whether Thomas Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. There are those who stand on either side of the fence and it's been believed in recent years the Hemings children were in fact those of Thomas' brother. Jefferson in Paris, like so many other films before and since, chooses to take the route of assumption. Based on speculation rather than fact and scandalous to say the least, the film follows Jefferson's visit to Paris to soothe French ruffled feathers after the American Revolution. The war with England has been won and is stirring a similar Revolution in France. Since the French aided them in forcing General Cornwallis to surrender, Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) has been asked by congress to represent the colonies in the French court. Taking his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) abroad for the summer, Jefferson rapidly becomes popular with the aristocracy.


Among this regal crowd is English-Italian Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife of a flamboyant  English painter (Simon Callow). Their friendship soon grows into affection, something Patsy loathes since on her deathbed her father promised his wife he would never marry again. France lies in turmoil. Marie Antoinette is believed largely responsible for the financial troubles of the nation and on every street corner she is mocked. Even tucked away in the convent where her father has placed her for safekeeping, Patsy is still influenced by changing events. As an American she resents the Europeans trying to modernize her. Displeasure grows when her father begins to regularly correspond with Maria... but is then sidetracked by the beautiful Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), the younger sister of one of his slaves. With the death of the youngest Jefferson child, the remaining little girl is brought to Paris with Sally as her escort.


Animosity grows between the young ladies because Sally is much prettier than Patsy, and she also resents the familiarity Sally takes around her family. In France all men are equal and slavery is outlawed, therefore the Jefferson slaves must be paid wages for their service. Sally's older brother (Seth Gilliam) wants her to take the money and allow him to spend it on drink, but the slave girl instead entrusts it to her "master." Jefferson soon finds Sally an amusing companion. Her stories of ghosts and life at home remind him of his happier days and eventually their friendship becomes stronger. In the meantime France is being torn in two by a political revolution, leaving the aristocracy in deathly peril. Jefferson must now also choose between the two women who rule his heart, one a married woman, the other a teenage slave.


At best this film is tentative. Though the characters are immoral they are still likable. The innocent flirtations of Sally make it very believable Jefferson would be attracted to her. She appears innocent at first glance but is much more dangerous than you might suppose. Right off her impertinence is to address her master directly. She's also free with Polly Jefferson, the little girl, and content to sass Patsy. The negative sparks between her and Paltrow's character are obvious. The acting here is very good. Newton brings Sally to life with snap and fire. Nolte is a little less persuasive as Jefferson, but the real gem here is Greta Scacchi. Having only seen her play the amused newly married governess in Emma and the jilted mistress in Daniel Deronda, it was wonderful to see her in a youthful leading lady's role. The score was also quite lovely and much of the film is spoke in French with subtitles, which lends authenticity to the piece.


For being a movie basically about lust (you cannot define a relationship between a thirty-something man and a fifteen year old girl as anything but lust) I was surprised how decent the content actually is. The rating comes from a two-minute long bawdy puppet show one of the slaves laughs over in the street. During this time everything was very negative toward the Austrian queen and the puppet show makes a mockery of her by engaging her in sex with "the court minister." It is offensive and does need to be censored. But aside from the puppets, there is no actual sexual content. Some girls in the convent read a couple of graphic passages from a trashy novel. Maria intimates her husband is gay and has encouraged her to find lovers elsewhere. There's much talk about masters taking advantage of slave girls; we learn Sally and her brother are half-white, the result of an affair Mrs. Jefferson's father had with one of his slave women.


One creepy scene has Polly declaring she will be "everything" to her father that her mother was, a "daughter, sister, wife, and mother." Some might think this, and a couple of other like scenes, incestuous but I didn't observe it overtly so. We never see Jefferson even kiss Sally, but he does pull her onto the bed after she asks him to dance and asks her if she's afraid of him. Mesmer comes to pay the court a call, employing his theories of "animal magnetism" to thrill the royal family. Jefferson sits in on one of these ridiculous sessions before calling it hogwash. Riots erupt in the street, windows are broken, people are knocked over in the rush. The creator of the guillotine shows people how it works by slicing off the head of a celery stick, much to their morbid amusement. We see a decapitated, bloody head on a stick with straw stuffed in its mouth. A man has a rope tied around his neck and is hoisted above the crowd, fighting to be set free. Royal dogs are fed raw meat in large quantities, leading to a few dogfights. The film is offensive from a purely American standpoint. Those of us who respect our former presidents and look up to them won't appreciate all this rampant speculation that Jefferson engaged thoughts of adultery and slept with a fifteen year old slave. The ending is also somewhat dissatisfying.