Exploring the Symbolism of Papillon

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A pair felons strike a pact on their way to a penal colony on the very aptly named Devil’s Island. The eponymous Henri “Papillon” Charrière is hired to protect the wealthy Mr. Dega from the other conniving prisoners. In return, Papillon will be rewarded with a sum of money, with which he hopes to engender an escape. However, in the brutal prison world of fiendish guards and treacherous criminals, and beyond this world only a beautiful but deadly country rife with fresh and unending dangers, Papillon’s dreams of escape stray only farther with each passing day.

A great deal of the film’s charm lies undoutedly in the striking differences between its two heroes. Could McQueen’s strong and rugged Papillon be any more different from Hoffmans’s weedy, bespectacled little Dega? In terms of temperament, they also seem to have hardly anything in common. Dega is obedient and rather assured; he is ready to play the system, bribing the guards and calmly awaiting the release papers which he is certain his lawyer will procur. Papillon, on the other hand, is fearlessly defiant. When he sees Dega pounded mercilessly by a guard, Papillon comes to his aid, landing himself a long stint in solitary confinement.

This brave act of selflessness moves Dega deeply, and a quiet friendship ensues between the two. It is this friendship that serves as the anchor and emotional core of the film. Knowing that his friend now starves in a miserable cage, Dega regularly smuggles in coconuts to Papillon, thus keeping him alive. The loyalty of Papillon is also confirmed when the guards find out about these very happenings. Papillon has his rations (of thin slop) cut in half, and his cell shrouded in absolute darkness. He falls near the cusps of instanity, but still he refuse to name his benefactor.

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During this time Papillon has a series of ominous dreams. Perhaps the most unforgettable is the one which takes place on a sunny beach. We recognise Papillon in a light beige suit, his fine clothing matching perfectly the sand on which he walks. Sitting in a painfully rigid line is a jury, and in the middle a judge in striking red and navy. The sharply contrasting colours of the two ‘sides’ seem not unlike pieces on a chessboard. Yet the most haunting aspect of the scene is not the visual, but rather what the judge has to say to Papillon. He accuses him not of murder, for of this our hero is actually innocent. Papillon is charged with something althogether more abominable.

I accuse you of a wasted life.

And as Papillon faces his allegorical opponent of the judge, he is like a lone king, forced into checkmate and forced into conceding his defeat. ‘Guilty,’ Papillon chants repeatedly as he walks away.

When finally released from solitary, Papillon finds an everlasting friend in Dega, as well as a renewed hope of escaping from Devil’s Island. The road to freedom however is a long and arduous one, and each time he seems close, Papillon’s glimmer of a chance is promptly snatched away. Yet his very fighting spirit, combined with the great humanity and love for his fellow man that remains in his heart, negates the judge’s cruel sentence. Papillon’s life is not wasted, not as long as he continues to hold it dear.

Papillon, which means butterfly in French, is a perfect sobriquet for the character of Henri “Papillon” Charrière. Like the vibrant blue butterflies which the prisoners are forced to catch, Papillon is not destined to be caged. However, one must not forget that butterflies are predominantly solitary insects, and Papillon too ultimately goes it alone. The conclusion of the film is therefore both beautiful and poignant. Dega must bid farewell to his dear friend, but as he watched Papillon drift away on the sea, as if being carried on the wings on the blue butterfly, it is indeeed a scene of hope and happiness.

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28 Comments

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    1. Thank you Pete! And yes, it is not often at all that a great book is translated into a great film. ‘Papillon’ is indeed one of the few instances. However, the book being so abundant in exciting tales, I have always thought it quite possible for another film to be made from the remaining material. Of course, whether it would match the excellence of ‘Papillon’ (1973) is another matter altogether.

  1. This is one of my favorite all time films. Nicely done, Rachel. The dream sequence is haunting and the solitary confinement horrific. I also liked much the escape scenes and the orderly played by Robert Deman.

    1. Thanks Cindy! You’re right; there really are so many brilliant scenes in this film. The attempted escape of Papillon, Dega and Mauturette in particular is one of my favourite sequences. Even after having watched the film so many times, I still get a little anxious watching Dega struggling over the wall.

      1. Me, too :). It hurts to see him get his glasses broken up. I love Dega I think a little more than Papillon as a character because he transforms more. Pappillon is outwardly brave and consistent. Dega loses more. His position/respect on the outside, his wife, his self esteem, his glasses ! and finally his friend. There is some peace with his plot of a garden on top of a cliff (really, what a gorgeous place for solitary confinement!). But I wonder if Dega has lost his life. It’s one of my favorite performances of all time. Certainly Hoffman’s best!

      2. Yes, you’re definitely right about how Dega undergoes an enormous transformation throughout the story – in many ways, this makes him a more compelling character than Papillon. Despite his great losses though, I think its good to remember that Dega does gain the precious gift of genuine friendship. Didn’t Dega say that he knew of no one who would risk their life to save him? He found a true friend in Papillon, and consequently learned himself what it meant to be a kind and loyal person. Perhaps this is the most important transformation that Dega undergoes.

        Although he does seem to lose everything ultimately (even his mind to an extent – he tells Papillon that his hut doesn’t have a ghost), Dega nevertheless possesses the understanding of what it means to be a friend. So that final scene as he watches Papillon go really is very bittersweet – he’s clearly sad to see him leave, and yet he shares the happiness which Papillon feels as he goes to his freedom.

  2. Rachel T, I only watched Papillon once, and without this wonderful study of the movie, I would have completely forgotten it. But now that you have stirred up this old memory, I will watch it again, Thank you. Bill

  3. You review movies bloody well, so I read ’em all. But I’ve seen Hoffman being plain/ugly so many times, and I don’t think I’ll look for this one …

    1. Your comment made me chuckle MR! Of course, don’t seek it out if you don’t want to, (come to think of it, I have seen Hoffman playing hammily plain characters a few times too often as well!).

  4. I saw this one long ago – I didn’t even recall the dream sequence. I remember the leper, and the warden, and how very very close the solitary confinement brought Papillon to insanity . Thanks for this well written and evocative review. I was happy to read it and consider a film that I hadn;t seen or thought of in quite a while.

    1. Yes, it’s interesting what images one retains after many years. I think one of the great things about Papillon is that something new strikes you as particularly evocative with each viewing. For me on this occasion, it was definitely those dreams. The second dream sequence, which I did not even get the chance to mention in my review, is actually rather different in tone but nevertheless equally (or perhaps even more) haunting. I won’t tell you what happens, because if you do want to see the film again I don’t want to have given absolutely everything away! :)

  5. Excellent commentary on the visuals. The performances were terrific in this film. As a young man I must have seen this a dozen times. I have not watched it in four or five years but I feel a Steve McQueen itch coming on, in part inspired by your choice of this movie,

    1. Thank you! Yes, I’m afraid I’ve concentrated mostly on the interpretation of the visuals in this review. You are right though, the performances are all excellent – anyone who believes McQueen wasn’t a good actor need look no further than the scenes in solitary confinement. Your comment actually makes me want to revisit the film soon and write another piece! For there really are so many other aspects of Papillon that are worth highlighting.

  6. Great, great, movie, up there in my all time favourites. Not sure people actually remember this movie very much when they think of Hoffman’s or McQueen’s best movies, but it is among the top 3 for both of them IMO. Their combined talents make this is a magic movie, an absolute must-see for any movie fan.

    1. You’re certainly right – I think perhaps part of the reason why is the fact that the the film and the characters portrayed are arguably departures from the quintessential movies that people associate the two actors with. Thus, ‘Papillon’ does not particularly leap out as a ‘McQueen’ or a ‘Hoffman’ film, and so may have been almost obscured over the years.

      Papillon does however stand on its own as – exactly as you’ve said – a show of Hoffman and McQueen’s combined talents, as well as the talents of all that worked on the film (Schaffner, Goldsmith, Trumbo etc.). It really is a fantastic film, and I think viewers are just starting to discover it again.

    1. That’s a great description Bill! I think you’re very right in describing it as a kind of judgement day; there’s a real sense of not only inevitability but also hopelessness – there’s nothing McQueen’s character can do now. Because of this haunting scene though, I believe Papillon’s final triumph becomes all the more satisfying.

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