The opening credits of JEFFERSON IN PARIS (Touchstone, PG-13) appear over a mysterious-looking contraption, a spindly wooden tracing machine that creates a duplicate copy of whatever the writer using it puts on paper. The camera circles this primitive piece of technology with such loving portentousness that I assumed the instrument was meant to evoke something essential about the man who popularized it, Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte). Jefferson in Paris presents its famous hero as a figure of passionate contradictions. He's the philosopher-saint of the American Revolution, yet also a cultivated aristocrat who mingles with the frivolous upper echelons of French society. He has dedicated his life to the proposition that ''all men are created equal,'' yet he believes that blacks occupy a lower place in the human order. He's a romantic who woos the elegant Anglo-Italian artiste Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), yet he begins to sleep with his 15-year-old slave, the childlike Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). Trying to figure out how these paradoxes might add up to a coherent human being, I thought back to that laden-with-meaning opening sequence. And I realized that just about the only thing it told me about Thomas Jefferson was...he liked making copies of his letters.
In Jefferson in Paris, the venerable art-house trio of James Ivory (director), Ismail Merchant (producer), and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenwriter) set up an intriguing opposition, focusing on the period in which Jefferson, the utopian democrat, lived within the bourgeois European world he'd successfully revolted against. Set during the years 1784-89, when Jefferson was U.S. ambassador to France, the movie, if nothing else, brings the ornate cocoon of late-18th-century Paris to vivid, eccentric life. At the court of Versailles, a huge blue balloon rises up in the air, carrying a cage of animals. In the sun-dappled countryside, a group of young aristocrats engage in a parlor-game duel, tossing out precious poetic thoughts in defense of ''mind'' or ''heart.'' (It's enough to get you to wonder what these people would have made of Twister.) Many of the details are fascinating in their decadent luxuriance; we certainly understand why the top-heavy French aristocracy was destined to fall. What's less clear is whether the filmmakers understand it. For all the fascination inherent in viewing Thomas Jefferson against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Jefferson in Paris is a Merchant Ivory bummer, a movie that loses the pulse of its characters amid a treasure trove of baroque period oddities.
A widower for two years, Jefferson ensconces his daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a Paris convent and falls in love with Scacchi's winsome, teasing Maria. Meanwhile, the French commoners are getting restless. Their insurrection has taken its cue from the recent American one, but, as a French politico notes, ''your revolution, Mr. Jefferson, appears to be incomplete.'' He's referring, of course, to slavery, the issue Jefferson in Paris uses to crystallize the tug-of-war between the personal and the political. Since slavery isn't condoned in France, James (Seth Gilliam), Jefferson's head slave, demands wages and starts to taste the air of freedom. His sister, Sally, finds a different sort of liberation: She begins to flirt with Jefferson, her patriarchal master. Their clandestine relationship should be the cornerstone of the film. But, as staged by Ivory, it's so oblique it makes almost no sense. Thandie Newton's Sally is a beautiful, swaying flower who talks in dawdling Stepin Fetchitese. There's only one explanation for why Jefferson would get involved with her -- lust -- and that's the one emotion that has no place in the Merchant Ivory universe.
Bereft of any flesh-and-blood honesty, the last half of the movie plays like a ludicrous PBS version of Mandingo, with Jefferson and Sally's relationship cast as a metaphorical love dance between aristocrat and ''noble savage.'' Nolte starts out convincingly, portraying Jefferson as a passionate moralist with a gift for ironic pensees. His performance, though, never grows beyond this one refined note. Jefferson, for all his romantic idealism, remains a pleasant shell of a man. He seems hollowed out, and so, by the end, does Jefferson in Paris. C