Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] A revolution in song
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Review: Stanley Heller
======== A REVOLUTION IN SONG ================================================
Stanley Heller reviews the new film version of Victor Hugo's classic /Les
January 4, 2013
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
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*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
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
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
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
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,
Vive la France! Vive la révolution!
/Stanley Heller writes for EconomicUprising /
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
/Les Misérables/ , directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell
Crowe and Anne Hathaway.
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