Papillon (2018)

papillonWhen I was eight or so, I had a brief fascination with the story of Henri Charrière, or “Papillon,” a French thief falsely accused of murder in 1931. Subjected to years of brutal and/or solitary imprisonment, Papillon kept escaping and being locked back up, until in 1941 he finally made it off of what was meant to be his final jail, the inescapable Devil’s Island. In all versions — Charrière’s bestselling memoirs, the 1973 film based on them, and now the remake — this material is intended to be the inspirational saga of one man who refused to let his soul be caged, and so forth. It’s a real “triumph of the human spirit” tale, with a repetitive freedom/capture/punishment, lather/rinse/repeat structure. What appealed to an eight-year-old about it? Maybe the guillotine. That was pretty cool.

The guillotine makes its appearance in the new Papillon, along with an upped quotient of bloodshed and nudity. The original film, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, very nearly got an R rating for its brutality but won a PG on appeal. The new one was never going to get a PG, from the looks of it. I’m not sure why someone felt the time was right to retell this story, except maybe that Unbroken, which shares Papillon’s high regard for masochistic endurance, had some success four years ago. Despite the advances in technology, the guillotine’s work is less convincing here than it was in 1973. The earlier film, thanks to a jump cut, gave the illusion of a man going from alive and terrified to dead and decapitated instantly, with his head tumbling down towards the camera. In the remake it happens at a distance from the camera; it might as well be a mannequin getting beheaded.

Everything else seems to happen at a distance, too. Charlie Hunnam, the new Papillon, and flavor of the month Rami Malek, as Papillon’s forgery-artist friend Louis Dega, make kind of a lackluster team compared to McQueen and Hoffman — who wouldn’t? A decade-spanning adventure  needs outsize personalities, grand gestures. These two aren’t bad — they turn in human-scaled, naturalistic performances, which would be fine in another kind of movie. But it’s not enough to carry a movie for two hours and thirteen minutes or to engage us for that long. Our attention shifts to broader supporting actors like Roland Møller as a violent, desperate inmate who wants in on Papillon’s escape, or Yorick van Wageningen as the Javert-like warden at French Guyana, where Papillon is kept. Aside from Papillon’s girlfriend in the early Paris scenes and a Mother Superior who sells him out, the movie is also quite the sausage-fest, which I guess is a trap of the material.

I don’t imagine this Papillon will transfix any eight-year-olds, even ones as weird as I was. It’s too grim, too poky and dreary. Which may be another trap of the material, or the prison-escape genre. You have to spend a good long time establishing the prison as a place our hero must escape against all odds. We feel trapped right along with the hero, and when he finally leaves the prison, so can we. I can’t be the only one who feels the deep urge to walk out when we get the montage showing how long Papillon spends in solitary confinement. He doesn’t want to be there, why should we want to sit there with him? A movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, with no hope of escape at the end but with plenty else to distinguish it, is far more engaging and even exhilarating than an old-school lockdown fable like Papillon. It’s ‘30s pulp elevated to wannabe-poignant Chicken Soup for the Soul fare. As for the 1973 film, much less the books, I haven’t wanted to revisit them. Better to let that memory stay gold.

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