J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public


Posted by J on November 15, 2008

Papillion is a jailbreak movie that doesn’t induce claustrophobia.  It might induce some yawning, but that 200px-papillon_ver1only will come later in the movie.  Our prisoner, a man nicknamed “Papillion” for the butterfly tattooed onto his chest, travels from France to French Guiana to Honduras and back to French Guiana.  As a prisoner in the dreaded French penal colony system, Papillion has a will to survive like no other.  He also tries to break free, constantly.

“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”  So said Jean-Jacques Rousseau, complaining that human society corrupts all individuals who in an otherwise natural setting would be happy, content, and uncorrupted. Papillion pays attention to Rousseau’s philosophy.  The French penal colony system is as oppressive as human society gets, so we are shown, and if only Papillion could get outside of it and live freely.  For a time, he does, living amongst a native South America tribe for a few weeks of idle bliss.  When the film gets to this moment, it becomes too idealistic and inconsistent, and therefore it lags.

The above paragraph answers the key question, “Freedom to what?”, since Papillion is escaping to something as well as from something.  Some viewers might get the idea that the movie is about spiritual liberation.  Perhaps to some degree that is true, but recall the scene where Papillion shows up at the nunnery.  The head nun deceives him and turns him back into the authorities, who ship him back to French Guiana for five years of solitary confinement.  The church, the movie seems to be saying, is complicit in society’s oppression.  Papillion just wants to get away from it all.  That seems to mean everything you can see in this movie, which is nearly everything.

The movie is compelling in its early going, when Papillion and his fellow prisoners arrive at the penal colony, up through the point where Papillion exits solitary confinement for the first time.  Papillion forges a lifelong friendship with another prisoner, Louis Dega, who each save each other’s life.  “Someone saving my life is a new experience for me,” Dega tearfully exclaims, as he explains why he is risking his life to bribe guards just to make sure that Papillion gets sufficient nourishment.  Papillion had the potential to be a wonderful movie if just for the Papillion-Dega relationship.  If only the movie had been properly edited.  If only.

The movie also should be considered a soft “R”.  You might look at the PG rating and think “okay,” but if you are wanting an okay movie to watch with the kiddos, catch Papillion on TV.  Otherwise you will see a decapitation, a man get his throat slit, lots of other scenes with bad 1970s fake blood, prison talk and innuendo, and a 5-minute scene with naked, tribal women.

Entertainment: 5-7

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 4


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