JUST WHEN YOU think your hero has met the greatest challenge he’s capable of weathering, he pops to the surface to return victorious again, all cleaned up with the scars on the inside. This is the message prominent in Michael Moer’s reworking and direction of Papillon for 2018 audiences. The story, based on fact, was popularised in the 1973 filmed version of the work, with Steve McQueen in the lead opposite Dustin Hoffman. The eponymous book was published four years earlier, and rapidly became part of popular culture’s most important block buster and a must-have on everyone’s book shelf. The film rocked box offices and popular imagination, then. In the same kind of thinking that brought A Star is Born to cinematic life for contemporary audiences this year, Papillon is here.
You’re never quite given to understand why Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is known as Papillon (butterfly, in French), but you’re so quickly swept away on the horns of a tale of intrigue and dishonesty, jewel thieves and evil behind the scenes, that you forgive this. Papillon is a story of unabated cruelty and its corollary: deep friendship in men in a context where you might believe is more about the selfishness of the parachute.
Papillon, the character, is a common and suave jewel thief in Paris of the early 1930s. He has a butterfly tattoo on his chest and a stash of filched diamonds to prove it. And he has a sweet young thing (Eve Hewson) on his arm and in his bed, as the finest possible alibi when the French gendarmerie arrive at his front door one sunny day with a murder accusation. He’s framed, of course, but the cops won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and the next thing you know, he’s spirited off to French Guiana where the most draconian of penal systems, replete with punishments that comprise literally years in solitary confinement, is in full sway, with the threat of interment in Devil’s Island, a god-forsaken place, primarily for political prisoners off the coast of Colombia.
The colony was established in 1852, boasted a mortality rate of 75% and its most famous prisoner was Alfred Dreyfus. It was a development from the French galley fleet which had been putting felons at the oars of galley hulks until they couldn’t any longer. The mindset behind the facility and the facility itself were completely dismantled by the 1950s.
The challenges Papillon face in jail are legendary and oft difficult to watch. The texture of the place is harsh and gritty. The violence is bloody and excruciating, but you know – whether it is through a subliminal memory of the book or the 1973 film or nuances in the film’s trailer – that this, too, shall pass. His transition, armed with the kindness that comes of urgency and the kind of cruelty that happens in the face of four escapees in a leaky boat made for three with an impending storm, is not easy. It’s about coconuts in the night, the guillotine revived and your rectal passages as the best hiding place for your money; it’s about what one is capable of finding in extreme silence and how the body heals from beatings. In short, the grand narrative of this film emulates important pieces such as Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption of 1994.
As such, Papillon is a story which vindicates the hero myth propagated by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. It is here where you get to watch a man go through the torments of hell to emerge a stronger, quieter, ultimately more evolved person. And this opens it to a slew of unmitigated clichés. They’re all there, but no one bursts into song, and the performances are tight enough to retain credibility, with Rami Malek as Louis Dega, Papillon’s friend.
When you look at the work from the outside, you will acknowledge that its story is, primarily French. When you cast an eye at the names of the people in the work, they overwhelmingly have Eastern European surnames. The mystery here, is why the work is infiltrated with largely American accents. It’s the kind of story that you would welcome being in French, with subtitles – given the authenticity it punts. But then again, when you think of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s filmed rendition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the mid-1980s, with its mêlée of English accents, perhaps you understand that it is you, the English speaker in the audience, for whom this story has been coined as a work of entertainment.
And entertaining it certainly is: the cinematography and music, the performances and clarity of narrative sweep you body and soul into the interstices of the tale, not letting up until the final heroic denouement.
- Papillon is written by Aaron Guzikowski based on the books Papillon and Banco by Henri Charrière and the 1973 screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. It features a cast headed by Michael Adams, Lorena Andrea, Nicholas Ashbury, Attila C. Arpa, Eydel Francisco Balbuena, Joel Basman, Sladjana Biljman, Dan Cade, Petar Cirica, Antonio de la Cruz, Christopher Fairbank, Shanti Deen-Ellis, Matt Devere, Angelyn Escobar, Josselyn Escobar, Tommy Flanagan, Andre Flynn, Gilly Gilchrist, Renne Gjoni, Demetri Goritsas, Máté Haumann, Nenad Herakovic, Eve Hewson, Jim High, Arnaud Humbert, Charlie Hunnam, Kieron Jecchinis, Nikola Kent, Rami Malek, Tom Leeb, Poppy Mahendra, Vule Markovic, Dragan Micanovic, Roland Møller, Paul Leonard Murray, Goran Navojec, Carli Nelie, Brian Nickles, Mirjam Novak, Damijan Oklopdzic, Cristian Ospina, Alex Papke, Luka Peros, Mark C. Phelan, Louisa Pill, Mark Robert Pullen, Veronica Quilligan, Zak Rowlands, Jason Ryan, Slavko Sobin, Michael Socha, Juan-Leonardo Solari, Brendan Stokey, David Stoller, Reshad Strik, Yorick van Wageningen, Brian Vernel and Joe David Walters. Directed by Michael Noer, it is produced by Ram Bergman, Roger Corbi, David Koplan and Joey McFarland and features creative input by David Buckley (music), Hagen Bogdanski (cinematography), John Axelrad and Lee Haugen (editing), Kate Ringsell, Marisol Roncali and Mary Vernieu (casting), Tom Meyer (production design) and Bojana Nikitovic (costumes). It was released in South Africa by Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau on October 19 2018.