Tuesday, June 23, 2009

LES MISERABLES (1998, UK/Germany/USA, August)

LES MISERABLES (1998, UK/Germany/USA, Bille August)
You no longer belong to evil. With this silver I've bought your soul. I've ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.

Forgiveness and transformation are at the heart of Christian faith, and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is one of the most deeply Christian stories ever told. The inspector Javert personifies the law, relentlessly pursuing what he considers truth and justice, exaggerating offenses – even his own – and demanding payment. And he does not believe in the human capacity to change: "Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature lawbreakers or law abiders. A wolf can wear sheep's clothing but he's still a wolf."

Jean Valjean, on the other hand, is a thief "who has been forgiven much" and, like a character from the Gospels, learns to love much. Early in the film the bishop provides him a meal and a bed to sleep in, and the convict remarks that "In the morning, I'll be a new man." Truly, the rest of his life will be spent testing that possibility.

Hugo's plot is a brilliant construction, an endlessly inventive series of variations on these themes of justice and mercy (one thinks of Portia's speech in "The Merchant Of Venice), of fundamental human nature and divine renewal (one thinks of II Corinthians 5). Danish director Bille August's star-studded treatment of this vast novel is a favourite of many, focusing on the story of these two characters. He is a director capable of great understatement and tenderness – Twist & Shout and Pelle The Conqueror are moving and evocative stories of childhood and coming of age – and one of the fascinations of this Les Mis is the tension between his directorial subtlety and the melodrama of the Rafael Yglesias screenplay. The dialogue in particular is often "on the nose," potentially off-putting for a sophisticated viewer: it spells things out for us with all the bluntness of a fable or an allegory.

But there is something deeply right here. The very directness of the story and its telling feels almost like scripture, one of Jesus' parables perhaps. "A certain man, a thief, was brought before a Bishop from whom he had stolen precious silverware. But the Bishop, being a merciful man...."

This story is melodrama: the focus is on plot, the events are writ large, the stakes always life and death. Sometimes the machineries of narrative clank a bit. (It may even be that the adaptor made an intentional choice to embrace and even heighten these genre conventions: like the director, this writer is capable of much more subtle writing, as evidenced in his script for Peter Weir's Fearless.) Perhaps for a sympathetic viewer, such conventions signal deep truths, eternal verities: what can seem on first viewing over-stated and obvious may have the capacity to stick in the mind and, with familiarity, prove profoundly True.

For me, the film is at its best in the first half, where the focus is entirely on Javert and Valjean. It loses some of its power once the story moves to Paris: the clash between the two men is backgrounded, and the adolescent love story doesn't have the same capacity to move me. At this point the revolution should inflame my passions – their cry for justice would be a glorious variation on the story's central themes – but the filmmaker doesn't spend enough time on the social context in Paris or on Marius's story for this new story to truly catch fire. We don't get to feel the passion of the revolution, the justice of their cause. Political backgrounds are summed up in an explanatory sentence when needed: we absorb the information, but we are not moved. If only the filmmakers had been willing to make a longer film, to show rather than tell some of these things, it could have been a much more potent realization of Victor Hugo's masterpiece of mercy and redemption.

The best reflection of the social passion of the novel comes earlier, in the trial of Carnot, an addled simple man who struggles to describe himself: "I'm a man who... what's the word for it? I'm one of those people who doesn't eat every day. I'm... I'm hungry, that's the word."

Ultimately, the power of this film probably lies not so much in what the filmmakers have done or failed to do with the story, as in the story itself, the underlying myth. C.S. Lewis writes of "the art of myth-making," where the pattern of events retains all of its power independent of the means of its telling: "it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets."

Whatever its successes and its failings – and indeed, it has both – this rendering of Hugo's mythic story has immense power to move, and perhaps even to transform. As a Christian, I find the essence of Valjean's central story to be my own. I recognize this man who has been bought with a price and then set free: a new creation who may never escape the reality – and the consequences – of his own human failings.


1 comment:

Alfred J. Garrotto said...

I love your analysis of the novel and movie. I, too, am captivated by this story. It is a veritable catechism of Christian faith.
I hope you'll visit my blog, "The Wisdom of Les Miserables," at http://wisdomoflesmiserables.blogspot.com.
I published a book of reflections on themes and quotes from the novel in 2008 (The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean). My current follow-up is a set of reflections on Bishop Myriel, whom you wisely identify as the catalyst character of the novel.
My favorite film version is Claude Lelouch's (1995), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. If you haven't seen it, see if you can get it.
Thanks again for a thoughtful review.