Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Papillon (1973)

Never trust a nun.

Living in the land between classic and complete obscurity, it's hard to know what to expect from Papillon. It stars a pair of bona-fied stars, but that's not a guarantee of quality. Like the film itself, watching Papillon is kind of an adventure. What you'll find in the movie are some very good performances and a generally exciting movie that, at times, feels more like an adventure movie than a prison drama.

Papillon is the, sort of, true story of a man imprisoned in French Guiana for a crime he may or may not have committed. He's a tough guy, even though the tatoo of a butterfly on his chest doesn't exactly give that image, and the only thing on his mind is escaping. Papillon, Steve McQueen, befriends the insanely rich prisoner Louis Dega, Dustin Hoffman, who has keestered enough money to underwrite several escape attempts. Those attempts are met with varying levels of success as the two fall effortlessly in love. The film was nominated for a pair of Academy Awards, one for the music and one for McQueen's performance, but it won neither. The film has remained a sort of cult classic over the years even though it has received generally good reviews.

Papillon is at times a really thrilling movie, but it also suffers from some major dull spots. The prison drama, especially in Papillon's first term of solitary confinement is really great. This early section of film, due in a large part to McQueen's excellent performance, is a big reason why the movie is remembered. This section is how the movie begins and I found myself hooked enough by it that I continued watching even when the film started to get dull. The dullness is caused by a combination of pacing a story issues. After the second escape, which is legitamately exciting, Papillon ends up in Honduras. That's when things get confusing. The escapees are noticed on the beach and Papillon flees leaving his friends to go knows what fate. He is given copious amounts of cocaine and he finds himself in a village full of beautiful topless women. Nothing about this section of film makes sense and it feels more like a vivid fantasy than an actual plot event. It's confusing and dull as far as I am concerned. The movie is only two and a half hours long, but it feels more like three. There is just such a stark contrast between the movie's strengths and weaknesses that it's easy to notice both in a viewing.

In the grand scheme of prison films, Papillon has a place. It may not be the best movie on the subject matter, or the most memorable, but the film is certainly enjoyable. In particular, the friendship that grows between the men feels really genuine and it's satisfying to watch. It's hard to say if Papillon deserves to be on this list, but it's good enough not to argue with it's inclusion. I would rather watch The Shawshank Redemption any time of the week, but Papillon was not a total dissappointment. The film deserves a little more exposure than it recieves and it is definatly worth watching.


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