Tuesday, June 23, 2009


In the history of the world, only two or three stories keep recurring forever. This story is one of them, and it has every alibi.

Critics are radically divided in their response to Claude LeLouche's deeply personal reworking of Victor Hugo's classic. Some are with Damian Cannon, who finds it "A wonderful and impressive film," intricately structured and deeply resonant, while Rita Kempley calls it "a turgid three-hour epic," "miserable," an "earnest extravaganza."

This story, set a century and a half after the novel, is equally ambitious in scope, opening with the swirl of a grand ball on the eve of the 20th century and following its characters through "the most miserable of times," World War Two in occupied France. Everywhere are echoes of the original story: a man is unjustly imprisoned, a desperate women sells not only her hair but her body, helpless people must rely on greedy opportunists, while underground idealists fight against overwhelmingly powerful government oppression. Eventually the story comes to focus on a certain character's "painful rebirth," which begins when people begin referring to him as Jean Valjean: illiterate, he relies on others to read or tell him this story which he once saw in a silent movie, projected on a bedsheet in a seaside inn, and around which he now begins consciously to shape his life.

The film careens wildly between stunningly beautiful visual moments and sophisticated narrative subtleties and complexities on the one hand, and overly self-conscious parallelism to Hugo's story on the other. Hand in hand with that tendency to overstatement are episodes that are criticized for being overly romantic, melodramatic, even maudlin, and a thematic explicitness that can diminish the impact of events. But it may be that this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the original – if Hugo is a myth-maker, he is also a moralist, and Lelouche seems to embrace it all whole-heartedly. At one point a character comments that the novel's final section is "a bit over the top – like us in the Resistance!" Perhaps the actions of real people caught up in cataclysmic events take on a certain melodramatic quality, viewed at a safe distance.

Those who are severely critical of the film neglect to mention its many extraordinary details, such as images of the convent girls running downstairs in white night gowns, or practising "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" on a seemingly endless row of pianos. (Note the way the sound is handled when we return to this same scene later). And while the morality of the movie is sometimes black-and-white obvious, it is also subtly nuanced in other places: the film is masterful in creating for the viewer an understanding of the extraordinary ethical dilemmas, the compromises and collaborations that tore at French citizens under the Vichy regime. Notice how LeLouche approaches the difficult question of discerning God's hand in times of great evil: the filmmaker comes at it through a complex layering of dramatic ironies in the scene in the Normandy pub, where the son of the original innkeeper argues "Thenardier is an angel! He's sent by the Lord. I'm not saying he isn't a scumbag. I'm saying he's sent by God." The film's detractors overlook the fact that several of the parallel storylines actually evolve into fascinating inversions of the comparable characters or events in the original, lending the film a constant unpredictability.

Still, no one who writes about this film overlooks the extraordinary work of French screen icon Jean-Paul Belmondo: you need look no further than the extended opening scene to see the power in a face, the depth of this man's connection to a role. Particularly glorious are some of his sequences with the director's daughter, the wonderful Salome Lalouche. She plays a Jewish girl (in another flourish of inter-textuality, the character is also named Salome) who is torn from her parents through the harsh circumstances of war. When she is with Belmondo, watch those two faces, the one so beautiful and young, the other so leathered and worn.

While this film stands on its own, you'll really appreciate its richness if you're familiar with the original story, whether by acquaintance with the musical, reading the novel or viewing one of the many film adaptations. Les Miserables provides a central myth for many Christians, and when this French director interweaves it with the central events of the twentieth century, the story of the Jews under Nazi oppression, the result – however uneven – is an intricate, important film experience.


1 comment:

Alfred J. Garrotto said...

Dumb me. Just found your review of Lelouch's Les Mis. Great insight.