I finally got to see Papillon five years later on broadcast television. As the title character, Papillon was Steve McQueen’s film from start to finish, but Dustin Hoffman stole most of the scenes as the ratty Louis Dega. The same could be written about the new Papillon, which opens this weekend at a local cinema, which stars Charlie Hunan as the title character and Rami Malek as the scene-stealing Louis Dega.
Henri Charrière is a suave safe cracker in Paris near the Moulin Rouge underground. After being framed for a murder he did not commit, Charrière is sentenced to a penal colony in French Guyana. Unlike the four season climate in Europe, the South American heat is brutal and Charrière is frequently shirtless. Due to a butterfly (French translation = papillon) tattoo on his chest, Charrière is nicknamed “Papillon.”
Given his street smarts and natural ability, Papillon is hired by Louis Dega (Malek) as a bodyguard. A master forger, Dega absconded to prison with money hidden in an unmentionable orifice, a seemingly common practice in the French Guyana penal system. When other convicts get wind of inmates carrying cash in this manner, the inmate is frequently gutted by fellow inmates and corrupt prison guards.
Infractions of the rules are met with harsh brutality. When a prisoner is captured trying to escape, he is sentenced to a guillotine. Before chopping off his head, the executioner states the philosophy of this hellish prison: “Keeping you is no benefit. Destroying you is no loss.”
The theme of escape is a constant in prison movies. Various attempts are made by Papillon to escape, only to be met with solitary confinement. One tantalizing escape features Papillon, Dega and two inmates attempting an escape during a social event while King Kong is being played on the prison wall.
Director Michael Noer creates a thrilling ride from crudity to sophistication, from carnal lust to spiritual freedom.
Based on Charriere’s autobiographies Papillon and Banco, this is a harsh story but a redemptive one. Both versions of Papillon stand on their own and do reflect the culture in which the film is made.