A revolution in song

January 4, 2013

Stanley Heller reviews the new film version of Victor Hugo's classic Les Misérables.

I HAVE read the book, seen the play several times, watched the 25th anniversary concert frequently and heard the album endlessly, but have never been able to quite figure out the attitude of playwright Alain Boublil toward revolution. So I went to see the movie.

I divide this review of Les Misérables into two sections with some general comments at the start and detailed observations about the film after a "Plot Spoiler" notice.

The film was great deal more real than the play, far more brutal right from the opening scene with convicts wrestling with a wayward ship to the views of the pitiful living conditions of the poor. The scene in the sewer is enough to turn your stomach.

The prostitutes are all hideous, none of Pretty Girl beautifying of prostitution, here.

The professional singers were amazing. Anne Hathaway nailed it as Fantine, in anguish as her hair is chopped away, her "I Dreamed a Dream" song delivered with a mixture of wistfulness and horror. Russell Crowe was OK. Obviously his singing voice is not Broadway quality, but he was believable as Javert, the cop with granite-like faith in the existing order at whose summit was God and the government.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

I was prepared not to like Thénardier because the role was played by the Sacha Baron Cohen (for his nasty trick on Ayman Abu Aita) and happily was not disappointed. Compared with versions on stage, he plays the innkeeper much too low-key. His wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was better, but the whole effect was grotesque rather than the comic. In the play, he's a rogue, in the movie only a bastard.

The camera focused on individual singers from torso to head. Excellent. You could understand all the words to the songs and the song-like talking in between.

Victor Hugo wrote the book in the 1860s when he was in exile on the isle of Guernsey while France was ruled by Napoleon III. Hugo was a humanitarian not a revolutionary though he had been elected to the Legislative Assembly brought to power by the revolution of 1848.

In Les Misérables, Hugo shows tremendous sympathy for the revolutionaries, but his book ends with Jean Valjean dying after convincing his daughter and son-in-law that the 600,000 francs he had hidden was gotten honestly (from owning a factory).

Review: Movies

Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.

In 1871, after Germany crushed Napoleon III's army and the Republic was restored, Hugo returned to France. During the Paris Commune, he expressed his opposition to some of its leaders and left the country for Brussels to deal with the affairs of his son who had just died.

When the Commune was defeated and the Republic began massacring its survivors, Hugo spoke out and called for mercy, suggesting that Belgium offer sanctuary. A mob gathered around his home in Brussels yelling, "Death to Victor Hugo! Death to Jean Valjean!" Hugo was unharmed, though Belgian King Leopold (genocidal murderer in the Congo) had him expelled. Later Hugo made it back to France.

SPOILER ALERT. See the movie before you read on, advance at your own risk.

IN THE play, there's a splendid moment just before intermission when the revolutionaries gather and start waving an enormous red flag. It's just amazing in its power. The film doesn't have that, but there was a very believable scene where, true to the book, the revolutionaries take over the funeral procession of General Lamarque and wave red flags among a few French flags.

The soldiers start shooting, and the barricades "arise." Jean Maximilien Lamarque was a real person, a general under Napoleon who later became a "leftist" critic of the restored monarchy. After the revolution on 1830, the new king, Louis Philippe, put him in charge of military forces to make sure that none of the old regime came back. Lamarque did this, but he also criticized the new king, which made him very popular with the lower classes.

The hero of the story is Jean Valjean, put in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, serving an extra 14 years for escapes and "freed" with a parole that made him a total pariah. He's understandably bitter, but charity from a Catholic bishop makes him into a new man, determined to live his life for God.

The favorable views of the Catholic Church in the book, and even more so in the movie, are rather surprising. Victor Hugo steadily moved away from the Catholic Church. He became more or less a deist, believing in God but not in religion or ritual. When two of his sons died, he made sure there was no crucifix or priest and made the same plans for his own funeral.

The book ends with talk of an angel with huge wings preparing to take Valjean's soul to heaven. The movie goes a lot further. His soul gets an escort right from the bishop himself.

I'll never forget how they manage the suicide of Javert in the play. He jumps, and at the same time the stage managers pull the railing he was standing on straight up. Your breath is taken away at the illusion of him falling 20 or 30 feet into the river. In the film, he jumps and you hear a realistic and terrible crunch when his body meets concrete, but it's not nearly the same in its power.

SO WHAT about the revolution? The book centers on Valjean, a person who just wants to be a good man, but is faced with a world of poverty, prejudice, cruel laws and pig-headed authorities. He just keeps on going, running from the police and the crooks. He doesn't become a revolutionary but ends up inside the barricade trying to save his daughter's boyfriend, Marius.

In the movie, he actually takes part in the violence, warning about sharpshooters and I think shooting off a gun himself at the forces of law and order. His big moment, of course, is with Javert, convincing the revolutionaries that he would kill the spy, and then freeing Javert without any conditions. We're all supposed to marvel at his goodness and, of course, Javert's certitude starts crumbling at this point, leading on to his eventual suicide.

Viewing the movie, I started thinking about this act of mercy from the revolutionaries' point of view. Here they have Javert who has just come back from the royalist army where he no doubt has told everything he knows about the revolutionaries' manpower, weapons and positions. He has come back with a cock-and-bull story about the army designed to leave open the revolutionary defenses.

So what does our hero do? Valjean lets this spy go, knowing full well he will probably go back to his superiors and tell them what else he might have learned about the rebellion. So was Jean Valjean saintly in his mercy or treacherous in his granite-like humanity?

After Valjean dies, in one of the final scenes, all the players (except Javert) are together on an immense barricade (much larger than the one on the street) with dozens of large French flags flying (only one red flag though). Everyone is joining a new version of "Do You Hear the People Sing," the revolutionary song that ends the first act.

What's going on? Is this support for the revolution? Is it heaven? Is it confusion? Is it all three?

Midway in the original "Do You Hear the People Sing," the students say, "There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!" They are clearly talking about life on earth.

In the show's "Finale" the melody is the same, but the message is mixed. For the wretched of the earth we are told, "They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord." Is that literally Heaven or a heaven on earth like William Blake's "Jerusalem"?

The song ends with "Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?" Combine that with what you see on screen--a vision of the wretched of the earth triumphant at the barricade--and your heart forgets the Hereafter and is thrilled with the spirit of rebellion. Intended or not, revolution triumphs.

Vive la France! Vive la révolution!

Stanley Heller writes for EconomicUprising

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