Jefferson in Paris ★★

1995 Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)

What is Jefferson in Paris about? It must be about Sally Hemings, since her son frames the story. No, it's about culture clash, with Jefferson's ambassador dropped into France on the cusp of revolution ("How can you fight for independence but deny slaves the same freedom?"—I'm paraphrasing). Wait, that's just a pretense for exploring Jefferson's secret identity as a sweet talker, pledging to "pierce through the whole mass of the world" (I'm not paraphrasing) to be with Maria Cosway. Then Hemings finally appears an hour into it to remind us it's been about her all along.

While too scattered to be boring, the film resembles nothing more than a (slightly) glorified Encarta entry, except perhaps community theater. Nobody fares well, but Thandie Newton's slave affectations are especially embarrassing. It's hard to watch her valiantly fight this uphill battle, unaware that all her strenuous efforts are working against her.