movienotes: les miserables

I have some book reviews I need to write for books I've read this month, and a third "why I write fic" post in the queue, but I just got back from a weekend with my sister in the beautiful Austin, Texas, and my brain can't seem to form coherent-yet-complex thoughts. So instead, I'm going to offer up a few observations about the film version of Les Miserables that I saw in the theater the weekend before last.

Javert (Crowe) and Valjean (Jackman)
I saw the musical once before, live, when I was in London in January of 2004. My principle memories at the time involve enjoying the music (I'm a life-long musical theatre fan, so a good musical will always win me over in the end), being distracted by the book I'd picked up that day and brought with me to read during intermission (The Time-Traveler's Wife), and my surprise at the fact that the emotional-relational through-line for the story is not the second act marriage-plot between Marius and Cosette but the connection forged between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. It is their dance of power, desperation, obsession, compassion, forgiveness, and despair that drive the plot from start to finish. Hugo's novel is that 19th century classic the Social Problems Novel and, and is -- I'm sure I am far from the first to remark upon this! -- a queer choice for musical theatre.

Fantine (Hathaway) selling her hair.
A few thoughts in no particular order:
  • Women, work and society. The film version of Les Mis had some really interesting (largely visual) observations to make about women and work. There's Fantine, Anne Hathaway's character, who is working in a factory to pay for her daughter's care. Rumored to be a slut, and punished by the foreman for being a single mother, she's cast onto the streets and sells her hair, teeth, and sex before succumbing to consumption. Her daughter, Cosette, has been boarded out as a laborer herself, working for a couple running an inn (the buffoonish and cruel Thenardiers). While Cosette is rescued by Valjean and ascends to the middle class through marriage (one could argue a certain kind of "wage work" in its own right, certainly an economic decision), her age-mate Eponine Thenardier -- abused by her parents and pining after Cosette's lover -- cross-dresses as a boy to join the revolution and ultimately dies on the barricade. On the periphery of the story drift prostitutes, beggars, and female religious who serve as nurses and also offer refuge for Jean Valjean at various points throughout the story. When the student revolutionaries are shot by French soldiers, the uprising put down, it is women who are left to scrub down the blood-filled streets. Overall, Les Mis hammers home in multiple ways the limited options for the vast majority of women in 19th century France. True, there were limited options for most people living in France at that time -- but this film adaptation does a good job of highlighting the way women's sex/gender limited them in particular ways.
  • Futility of revolutionary action? Throughout, the film/musical has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the politics of its student revolutionaries. Marius's boyfriend Enjolras is a charismatic and idealistic young Parisian student who, with a group of peers, orchestrates a violent rebellion (based on a real historical incident) that ultimately fails and leaves everyone -- save Marius, rescued by Jean Valjean for his adopted daughter's sake -- dead. In Hugo's world, the violence of the state (personified by Javert; more below) is responsible for the wretchedness of virtually every character in the story, but political action is depicted as ultimately futile and deadly. Yet the film ends with a triumphant reprise of the rebels call to arms, with Fantine, Valjean, and all of the dead students waving tricolor flags high above the Parisian skyline. Have they ... won? And if so, how? Is the film meant to suggest revolutionary action is ever-needed? If the next generation (Marius and Cosette) have retreated into bourgeois respectability -- Marius' father welcomes them in with open arms and throws a lavish party for their wedding -- should this be considered a win? For whom? I have read some reviews that suggest Hugo's narrative points toward interpersonal love triumphing over political action (again, more below) but if that is the thrust of the plot it is an unsatisfying one: many people, even many "deserving" poor, die or are left in desperate poverty despite benevolence (and occasionally actual care) extended to them by others. If I had to guess, I'd hazard that Hugo might imagine that all attempts to improve the human condition on a large scale are doomed to failure, and that one-to-one interactions are our only -- and ultimately futile -- recourse.
  • Letting go of the next generation. As I wrote above, my first impressions of Les Mis is that it is a story about parents and letting go. Fantine, first, must let go of Cosette in order to provide for her (by going to work and leaving her with the innkeepers), and then ultimately must let her go when she dies and entrusts her to Valjean, a man she barely knows. She cannot know what her daughter's future holds -- for good or ill -- and yet must depart. And then in the second act Valjean must let go of Cosette when she falls in love with Marius. While at first this loss is painful to him, and he tries to leave  the country with Cosette in tow, when he intercepts a letter from Marius to Cosette he regrets his actions and rescues Marius from the barricades. After the two children are engaged to be married, Valjean -- his duty to his daughter complete, now she is in another man's care -- he departs to a monastery to die. We also have, of course, all of the children who die: Eponine and the students, including a young street urchin named Gavroche who is the first casualty of the day. The adults may believe these young peoples' actions are foolish and futile, dangerous even, but the young people ultimately must forge their own paths.
  • The central romance in the story is between Valjean and Javert. So, okay, you don't have to read their relationship as one long exercise in Unresolved Sexual Tension - but I certainly found it much more satisfying than the Marius/Cosette situation, let me tell you. Inspector Javert spends decades in pursuit of Valjean, obsessed with the man and fascinated/repulsed by the notion that the "criminal" Valjean (imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread) could ever be anything other than a criminal. Valjean, whose religious conversion shortly after he is paroled helps him rebuild his life, tries to model a more nuanced morality for Javert (while, you know, evading re-arrest!) -- and in the penultimate scene he succeeds. Given the opportunity to kill or capture Valjean, whom he has tracked into the Parisian sewers, Javert lets Valjean go. And is so shattered by his decision to let the rule of law go in the interest of human compassion that he commits suicide.
  • Oh, and the acting. I was really impressed with everyone in this cast, all of whom seemed to really be throwing themselves into their work both musically and acting-wise. At times, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe really seemed to be struggling with the score which surprised me -- since I know Jackman, at least, is a strong singer. But I think that might have been a function of recording the songs live on-set rather than in a recording studio before or after the shoot. And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the odious Thenardiers were delightfully campy, offering some of the only comic relief around -- and even then, theirs is a story that has a pretty tragic side if you linger more than a moment or two). 
And that's all I got, folks. If you're musical theater fans or fans of the Victorian "social problem" novel, I'd highly recommend seeing the film -- preferably in the theatre since it truly is a spectacle of a movie musical. I know some people were really frustrated by the filming -- the tendency to frame actors in the corner of the screen, or incompletely, but I actually like that technique for the way it makes you notice the composition of the shot, makes you realize a visual image is being constructed for you, rather than allowing you to feel you're simply immersed in the action. Artifice, in this instance I would argue, works well with the musical genre.


  1. "Valjean, whose religious conversion shortly after he is paroled helps him rebuild his life, tries to model a more nuanced morality for Javert (while, you know, evading re-arrest!) -- and in the penultimate scene he succeeds. Given the opportunity to kill or capture Valjean, whom he has tracked into the Parisian sewers, Javert lets Valjean go. And is so shattered by his decision to let the rule of law go in the interest of human compassion that he commits suicide."

    I had a long conversation with Noah about the reasons that Javert has become my favorite character in this story... Valjean is the easy choice, but you're RIGHT, his "morality" is very nuanced and based totally on his own claims of piety (while turning a blind eye to the ways he continues to dodge the system)... and Javert is tragically caught in the trap of his own morality... it takes his life in the end.

    Love it! You hit some great marks here.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Elisabeth! I hadn't really thought about Javert's character being one of the characters who makes the biggest moral journey of the novel until I was writing this post ... and then it's like, well, of course! I mean, I think Valjean does as well -- from anger/revenge/desperation mode into something finer. But most of that happens off-screen or at least is represented by the moment of religious conversion. Whereas we really do see Javert struggle with the values-system of the world he has bought into. He tells Valjean at one point that he was born in a prison (presumably to an inmate), so to have moved from a position of powerlessness into having power-over was probably necessary for survival for him. To then give that up for a more complicated notion of "good" and "bad" is literally self-destroying for him ... unless, obviously, you want to revise it in your head!canon and assume he was rescued by nuns and reunited with Valjean ;).