Les Misérables (2012)

Javert’s Tightrope Act

Claude Lelouch’s Les Miserables, one of the many very good film adaptations of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, begins with an intensive close-up on actor Jean-Paul Belmondo’s  face. It is a pivotal scene in the novel, when Jean Valjean realizes that his behavior tormenting a young chimney sweep has failed the test a Catholic cleric has given him. After having stolen the Church’s candlesticks, Valjean is set free by the priest, a lesson in forgiveness that Valjean is to pay forward. Valjean does not remember the lesson easily. Taught to hate by twenty years of imprisonment in the cruel French penal system for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his dying niece, Valjean steals the boy’s coin and refuses to give it back to him. After the child scurries away, Valjean forever transforms, finally learning at this special moment the priest’s lesson, indeed the lesson of Christianity. Valjean cries and screams after the chimney sweep, desperate to make amends. The moment in the 1995 film is intertextually rich, as we see Jean-Paul Belmondo’s face—from French New Wave fame now some 36 years after Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless—wrinkled and battered by time.

I begin with this image because Tom Hooper’s new film musical version of Les Miserables features a close-up-based set piece that transcends the power even of Lelouch’s aesthetic tour-de-force opening. Neither Hooper’s film nor its source, Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boubil’s excellent stage musical (1980), feature the chimney sweep scene. Instead, the two-hour musical turns Hugo’s sweeping, 1,500-page novel into a highlight reel, but this hardly matters. The power of the triumphantly sentimental music coupled with Hooper’s exquisite cinematic sensibility, produces a film musical which combines the direct pleasures of the traditional Broadway and Hollywood musical with the post-modern play of great contemporary film musicals such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001).

In the second act of the film, when Valjean has transformed into M. Madeleine, a successful town mayor, we meet Fantine, a mother of a child abandoned by its father, who gets dismissed from her job at Madeleine’s factory by a corrupt and lecherous foreman. Forced into selling her hair to support her daughter, and enduring prostitution, rape, and unbearable degradation on the filthy streets of Paris, Fantine sings the musical’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” lamenting the life that’s been denied her. I scoffed last week when one of the industry hack critics swooned about a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. After seeing the film, I am convinced she should earn two such awards. The moment might be the single most spectacular ever in a film musical. There are other great musical set pieces—Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain, for example, but minute for minute, I cannot remember being as moved by a song in a film.

Hooper holds Fantine in close-up throughout, crowded into the right half of the image. Shorn of her hair, face and teeth dirtied by a life of poverty, Fantine’s song doesn’t seem to be sung by the exquisitely beautiful Hollywood actress, Anne Hathaway. Instead, she seems born of the grimy set. Indeed, her face becomes the set, as the otherwise glorious set design is stopped down here to just Fantine in isolation.

Indeed, this is the aesthetic key to Hooper’s visual triumph. Without altering virtually any plot or character aspects of the stage musical, he has invented a filmic mode of delivery of the material, emphasizing the relationship of the individual actor to the social world surrounding her. The film begins with the completely unexpected: the labor camp of Hugo’s novel to which Valjean has been sentenced for twenty years becomes an odd ocean-based shipyard where the naval might of 19th century Napoleonic France is forged. Valjean is one of many slaves pulling on huge ropes, dragging a ship into dock from out of the raging sea. This opening is a tremendous risk for a musical. The vast sweep of the scene drowns out many of the voices, particularly the weakest of the male singers, Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert.

However, the film makes clear by the ending that this is the thematic motif most strongly extracted from Hugo: social transformation occurs because of individual acts of courage. Javert comes to recognize Valjean by his superhuman strength, first here when he drags the ship’s long mast carrying the French flag to Javert’s feet, and later when Valjean rescues a man by lifting a huge cart which has fallen on top of him. When it is this very man who saves Valjean with Cosette in his arms from Javert later in the film, the man ceases to be an improbably located individual, and becomes a metonym for the larger forces of French social life put in play by Hugo.

This motif, of the individual caught within a complex web of the social, works its most profound effect on Javert. When the plucky street urchin Gavroche is killed by Emperor Napoloen’s troops, it is Javert who takes the medal from his own chest and places it upon the boy’s lapel. It is a stunning moment, because Javert has not yet undergone his most significant transformation. The best example of this in all of literature, Javert is a monological thinker: he builds his identity around the simplicity of the Law. If Valjean steals a loaf of bread, he is a criminal: the severity of the crime, or its extenuating circumstance, is of no significance to Javert. Even when Valjean saves Javert’s life from the revolutionaries by only pretending to shoot him and then letting him slip away to freedom, the inspector has not yet learned the lesson of the candlesticks, of Christ’s forgiveness, of the superiority of Valjean’s philosophical system.

Hooper’s visual design finds its greatest expression at the moment of Javert’s transformation. Javert finally confronts the impoverishment of his life’s work when Valjean carrying Cosette’s lover, Marius on his back through the sewers of Paris, crosses paths with the inspector one last time. When Valjean comes to understand that Javert will not shoot him, he walks past him to bring the unconscious boy to safety. A surprise even to himself, Javert indeed does not move. Once Valjean is gone, Javert walks to the stone quay high above the oddly tumultuous River Seine. In an image repeated from earlier in the film, Javert walks carefully one foot in front of the other, precariously balancing. It is the most profound metaphor in the film. The chaos of imbalance that everyone else in the film confronts (Valjean not being able to both act for justice and within the law, Eponine’s inability to discard her love and hatred for Marius because he in turn loves Cosette) finally catches up to Javert. The false equilibrium of his life, forged by a maniacal adherence to the Law, finally abandons him. Unable to understand Valjean’s status as a redeemed criminal, Javert hurls himself into the Seine, crushing his back on a sluice gate filtering the water under the city. Javert’s tightrope act has only one possible conclusion: self-immolation.

Les Miserables is a stunning three-hour experience. But, I couldn’t help seeing its conclusion as bittersweet. Having been denied closure in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, also three-hours, because the film’s narrative purportedly merits another two parts and six hours, it seems to me that Les Miserables is far more deserving of such elongation. Truly built out of three parts, not like J.R.R. Tolkien’s flimsy 280 page action yarn, Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel is a masterpiece of narrative and characterization. Hooper’s film produces two time ellipses, shifting from Valjean’s release from prison in Act I, to his time as M. Madeleine, to the ending at the barricades with Marius in Act III. Chided by the critics of the 1860s for producing such a Romantic, sentimental, and non-modern novel, Victor Hugo has bequeathed to the stage musical and Hooper’s film the simple belief in plot being able to carry the most sophisticated of themes, of redemption and human survivability. In the magical exchange of light between Fantine’s crying eyes, and my own in the audience, Les Miserables gives me more plot and character than in the twelve hours (and still counting!) of The Lord of the Rings.