Yes, I know. The movie has been out for over half a year, and only now I get around to seeing and reviewing it. But I rarely go to the movie theater. The last movie I’ve seen at the theater was Silver Linings Playbook. Before that, it was No Country for Old Men. I just don’t much like watching movies at the theater, so I pick them carefully. (Just like I don’t like going to football games, and especially not ones that I can watch on television.) I watch a fair number of movies (but not during football season), but only go to the theater if I think I will really like the film. Les Miserables didn’t make the cut.
I rented “Les Mis” (shortening the name in the same manner as all the smart, sophisticated hipsters) at the Redbox down the street. It was last Saturday, July 6th, the third day of incessant rain in my parts, which had pretty much totally washed out any feeling of holiday exuberance for the Fourth of July holiday and weekend. I figured it was either rent Les mis or go bowling (a reference to a hilarious sketch by comedian Jim Gaffigan in which he explains that bowling is something you do on a rainy Sunday afternoon in lieu of committing suicide). Bowling could not possibly have been as bad as this movie.
I picked Les Mis out of the Redbox lineup for two reasons. I was sent on the errand of renting a movie by my wife and daughter (age 16). While I had only something like morbid curiosity about the film (what is the big deal about this book/play/movie?), I knew they would enjoy it. And would it be better to suffer through a lousy movie, or listen to a couple of caterwauling females bitch about my taste? And nobody I knew who had seen the movie or the play could ever provide any sort of satisfactory explanation of what the movie was about. If it was so great, then why didn’t anybody even understand the plot? Not even my wife, who has seen the play twice, could explain what the hell it was about. So I figured I could at least find out for myself.
So, at least I figured out the plot. But I still don’t know what the movie is about.
The movie starts in 1815. You know that because it tells you so on the screen, but just ignore the particular date that flashes on the screen which I can’t now recall (i.e., don’t scurry to find, like I did, whether the particular date on the screen was before or after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in the same year—it doesn’t matter) and all subsequent dates because the relationship of the movie to its historical setting is mainly irrelevant. This is not historical fiction. It just uses the backdrop of post-Napoleonic France as, well, a backdrop. Post-Napoleonic France provides the setting for some of the film’s conflicts, and conflict, of course, is the sine qua non of fiction. The film (and I assume the play and the book) uses the revolt of the late 1820’s/early 1830’s against the Bourbon restoration in France as the vehicle for examining life, love, honor and courage. Sort of. Mostly it just provides an excuse for blood and gore and wailing, sometimes melodically, sometimes not. But the setting makes the ridiculous sing-through dialog seem even more ridiculous.
Having only seen a few of the classic musicals (e.g., Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, etc.), I foolishly was unaware that some musicals pretend to be operas, and sing the dialogue. I thought the singing in a musical was something to release or express pent up emotions—that the plot carried along in dialogue normally like any other play, until there was an appropriate time to break out in song—like Sister Mother Abbess singing “Climb Every Mountain” in the Sound of Music as the finale to the first act. Boy, was I wrong. Does Russell Crowe (Javert) have any idea how ridiculous he looked and sounded singing threats to Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean)? Did Hugh Jackman, whose voice was magnitudes better than Crowe’s (whose singing often sounded like a wounded creature of his namesake’s species) believe that he was so good he could sing replies without embarrassing himself? Jackman turns out does have a decent voice, but it’s not that good.
The movie starts with Jean Valjean in prison, where a group of prisoners are tugging on a rope that appears to be pulling a ship into a dry dock. Maybe. It all looks very surreal, which is amplified by all the prisoners singing, or chanting really, “look down”. Clever lyrics, huh?
Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s child (some would call it a niece or nephew, but Valjean doesn’t). He has been in prison for nineteen years, which is hard to believe, even in Napoleonic France (as the movie starts in 1815, and Napoleon ruled intermittently from the early nineteenth century). It is not much considered today, but the French could be outrageously brutal to each other. Witness the Huguenot massacres of the 16th century, when thousands of Protestants (Huguenots) were slaughtered by Catholics. And life in the era of the film’s setting was mostly nasty, brutish and short in France (never mind the rest of the world), to borrow from Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher who anticipated what life without a strong government, i.e., one against which a revolution was raging, would be like. Still, nineteen years for stealing bread and attempting escape seems a bit severe.
Valjean’s time has finally been served and he is let go by Javert. Then the film fast-forwards to Valjean, clean-shaven and respectable looking, as the owner of a factory and mayor of the small town in which it sits. One of the factory employees (Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway) is caught (by her coworkers?) sending money to her illegitimate daughter (Cosette) whom she had placed with a sleazy innkeeper. How this is a crime, today, then or ever, is beyond me, but she is let go from her job by the foreman. Fantine then turns to selling her hair and teeth (what did people do with other people’s teeth back then?) and, of course, her body, to provide money for her child. She is abused by her johns to the point of death, although exactly in what manner is left to the viewer to decide. Since this is a chic flick, the director probably knows that most women will figure she dies of disgrace and a broken heart. Whatever. Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for her portrayal of Fantine, who was dead before the movie was half over, but I think it’s mainly because she turned out to be a quite talented singer, and she really got ugly for the role—actually losing weight and having her hair cut off, it appears on screen. It’s hard to imagine the Princess of Princess Diaries as ugly, but there it was, in Technicolor for all to see. I suppose willingly disfiguring oneself for a film counts as acting in some quarters.
Valjean is haunted and pursued by Javert in his new and respectable life. Valjean had broken parole in order to start anew, but Javert recognized him in the streets of his new hometown one day when he lifts a cart off of a man (similar to something he’d done as a prisoner). How Javert and Valjean continually end up in the same places is, I suppose, attributable to literary license. Even in the 1800’s, France was a big enough country to make such a thing highly unlikely to occur fortuitously.
Just previously to being recognized by Javert, Valjean has promised to the dying Fantine that he will care for her daughter, so goes and buys her from the sleazy innkeepers she had left her with, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Carter is as creepy as her husband domestic partner, Tim Burton. Cohen looks to be playing himself. The innkeepers have a daughter, Eponine, played by Samantha Barks in her grown-up form, who will prominently resurface later.
Fast forward another few years and, in a reversal, Valjean catches up to his pursuer, Javert, when Javert is captured by a rebellious/revolutionary youth gang, the leader of which has fallen instantly in love with Cosette, though Eponine is in love with him. How all these people keep showing up in the same places, well, I’ve already mentioned the improbabilities, but still, even a fictional plot (or perhaps particularly a fictional plot) has to be believable for the story to resonate. So I sort of lost what little interest the story held for me after this last fast-forward through time.
Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but lets him go. Later, when Javert is presented the opportunity to kill Valjean, he is unable to do so. The moral ambiguity and conflict inherent with rejecting his duty to follow his heart does him in, and he jumps to his death into the icy waters of a river. In fact, only Cosette and her new husband, Marius Pontmercy, played by Eddy Redmayne (who, curiously, doesn’t have red hair), remain standing at the end of the flick. Everyone else is in heaven, or something like it, but we are told that to love someone is to see the face of God, so maybe those two are in heaven at the end, too. After Valjean learned that Cosette was in love with Marius, Valjean rescued him from near certain death during the revolt by smuggling him through the sewer system.
Eponine, in the person of Samantha Barks, returns to the plot a bit before the revolutionary zeal reaches its fever pitch, still as the daughter of the sleazy innkeepers, but also in unrequited love with Marius, whom she realizes has fallen for Cosette. She gives her all for the revolution (i.e., she dies) when she finally accepts she can’t have him, but renders the most beautifully sung lament along the way (“A little fall of rain”), before dying in his arms. Barks is the only actress in the film worth the trouble, and is far and away the best vocalist.
The movie ends as Valjean dies and is escorted to heaven (presumably) by Fantine, where he joins the rest of the cast, excepting Javert (or at least I didn’t see him). Javert, as Valjean’s tormentor and an official of the French government (maybe a soldier, or prison guard, or naval officer—it’s really hard to tell), did not, apparently, make it to heaven, or wherever it was that the tricolors were waving while everyone who died cavorted about.
I can understand why nobody could tell me what Les Mis is about. Even after watching the film, I don’t quite understand it myself.
Is it about the true source of morality? The film seems to have as something of a theme that morality is a product of the human heart which is often perverted and contorted by the edifice of the state and society. The Javert/Valjean conflict is an example of this theme, with Javert representing a twisted sense of morality with his idea, sung and not spoken, that whatever is the state’s impulse is the moral and good one.
But the film might be, at least accidentally, about the cruelty that man acting in concert with other men will inflict on his fellows, doing things in a crowd he would never dream of doing alone. Valjean’s factory hired girls who turned on one of their own when it was discovered she was supporting an illegitimate child. Surely no one acting alone would have treated Fantine in the manner they did, and since the factory belonged to Valjean, he does not escape culpability. Though he seems to be a paragon of virtue through the movie, and does right by Fantine in caring for her daughter after her death, he still can’t escape the immorality inherent in the social constructs of his new life.
Alas, there may not be any way to really know what the movie was about, and particularly without reading the book. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French poet, novelist and dramatist of the Romantic Movement in literature and philosophy. The Romantic Movement placed primacy on emotion as being the proper prism through which human actions and impulses be evaluated. It was a push back against the ascetic rationalism sweeping the European Continent with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. The movement was an attempt to carve a place for the human soul to exist, after reason had all but obliterated the religious space which it had once inhabited.
But there was a latent vulgarity with the Romantic Movement, perhaps best explained by Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy:
The first great figure in the movement is Rousseau, but to some extent he only expressed already existing tendencies. Cultivated people in eighteenth- century France greatly admired what they called la sensibilite, which meant a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought. The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class.
The movie is utterly dripping with emotion. The actors confront heart-rending emotional decisions at every turn. Thus, perhaps the movie is about the vagaries of the human heart, but from a decidedly Romantic perspective, one which basically proposes that the intensity of a feeling determines its truth. Actions taken that reflect the power of one’s emotions sanctify their veracity. For example, that Marius and his mates were willing to effectively commit suicide in revolt against the French state proves the validity of their belief that the French state was evil.
The particular meanderings in the plot of the movie seem Romantically inspired. Romanticism requires the suspension of disbelief, so it was perfectly okay for the plot line to require the characters to fortuitously appear in each other’s lives years later. In the Romantic ideal, the improbability of such a thing happening makes the emotionally fraught decisions presented to the characters even more compelling. Besides, a true Romantic believes all things to be connected in a karmic sort of way, and that actions will have consequences in unexpected ways, such as when Valjean is rediscovered by Javert in the town where he’d reinvented himself. For Romanticism, the past is never dead and buried, it isn’t even past. Yes, William Faulkner was a flaming Romantic, in the Southern gothic tradition.
All in all, I would imagine the book must be much better than the movie, but would still not be of much interest to me. I don’t view the world through a Romantic prism. I don’t much believe that the human heart is all that reliable an explicator of truth. I rather believe the human heart is more often an impediment than an aid to understanding. And I never much cared for Faulkner.
It was tortuous, watching all two and half or so hours of the movie. I think the length was of a piece with the Romantic ideal that belief is sanctified through committed action. The producers felt they should make the people suffer through an extraordinarily long movie to show how fastidiously they, and presumably everyone watching it, believed in the enterprise. To me, it felt like something like being beaten until one’s morale improves.
At least renting the movie bought me some peace on a rainy, mid-summer, Saturday evening. Had I rented something else instead—something that I might have enjoyed—I would have suffered the scorn and deprecations of my wife and daughter all evening. I traded one sort of pain for another. And at least now, I know why no one can tell me what Les Miserables is about—because no one really knows. And though I don’t either, I can now at least more or less capably explain the events that take place along the work’s meandering plot line, if not the reasons for them.