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February 26, 2024

Les Miserables: Movie Review

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie said:

I admit. Until this past Thursday, I was a Miserable virgin. But then there I was, drowning my sorrows in a bag of popcorn, when I heard a voice like Jacques Cousteau say, "Eet is cle-air that jyew are not the zhai-unt squeeede, yet here we are, no? Eet truly eez a thang of beau-tay." A few credits later, and I found myself locked in the passionate embraces of the turbulence of nineteenth century France.

"Zut alors," I gasp. "Je suis un homme."

Yes, the ugly truth is that I had never seen a theatrical production of Les Miserables, had not read the book or its CliffNotes, had not seen the play which became a world-wide phenomenon. I can not give good reason for this -- it just never seemed convenient, and since there was no promise of space aliens or a bikini clad Charlize Theron, there was no sense of urgency.

So here's the story: A French guy named Johnvaljohn is released from prison after having been screwed over for stealing some bread for his sister's kid. Of course in France at this time, being released from prison means that they just get to pick on you someplace other than the prison, and Johnvaljohn soon realizes that everyone hates him; he returns to his life of crime, but is saved from arrest by the kind actions of a bishop. Can you believe that? A Catholic bishop being portrayed as a good guy? Go figure. So Johnvaljohn talks to God and says he'll live a good life because the bishop was nice to him, and like, he does. He changes his name, goes into hiding, and becomes a popular good guy with a successful business and a budding political career as the town mayor. As it turns out, the prison guard (Joe Vear) who liked to watch Johnvaljohn take showers shows up to run the town police force. Of course he doesn't recognize Johnvaljohn from the front, but everytime Johnvaljohn walks away, Joe gets this deja vu tingly feeling, and he starts to get suspicious.

In the meantime, Anne Hathaway who is clean and good looking, is hiding a secret -- she has a daughter out of wedlock. What with this being France, it doesn't take long for the news to get out. She loses her job, gets really desperate, sells her hair, then two of her teeth, and then decides to hit the streets as a hooker. Now that's never a good idea, but it's worse yet when you decide after you cut your hair off and have your front teeth pulled out. She gets really, really dirty and really, really sick, and then makes the mistake of punching a guy who is a total butthead. Unfortunately, in France, it is illegal for a sick, defenseless woman to hit a butthead who is threatening her. Anne is arrested by Joe, but is rescued by Johnvaljohn who promises to take care of the daughter. Anne dies, but not before singing the best song of the show, and Joe tries to arrest Johnvaljohn who escapes and finds the little waif Cosette. Cosette and Johnvaljohn are chased by Joe, they escape, they are chased by Joe, they escape, and they are chased by Joe until Cosette grows up and gets a boyfriend who is chased by Joe because he and his friends are revolting. In an odd twist, Joe is captured by Cosette's revolting boyfriend, and as luck would have, Johnvaljohn helps Joe to escape because Johnvaljohn can't help being a nice guy. The revolting boyfriend is wounded in battle with Joe's police buddies, and Johnvaljohn drags himself and boyfriend into the sewers of Paris where he is reunited with Cosette's evil former guardian, and of course is chased by Joe. Joe lets him go for old times' sake, but then can't figure out if he's a good cop or bad cop and kills himself. The boyfriend recovers, marries Cosette, and Johnvaljohn dies.

Here's what I think: this is a great, great story of salvation and the power of love, and refreshingly, the love we are talking about here is agape rather than eros. The selfless putting of others' needs ahead of our own (agape) is the force of love that "conquers all." Too often in entertainment, "love conquers all" means merely that someone will get boinked in the end (so to speak), or more naively, everyone will get boinked in the end, and such boinking is precisely what they needed. I think that there were some stunningly good performances here. Anne Hathaway as Anne Hathaway was excellent, as was Hugh Jackman as Johnvaljohn, and Russell Crowe was jaw-droppingly good as Joe. I think the director's decision to record the singing live rather than have studio versions dubbed in later left a certain grittiness to the performances that made them more satisfying.

Here's also what I think: as much as the story was great and the performances excellent (in fact perhaps even Oscar-worthy in the case of Hathaway and Crowe), I did not like the movie part of the performance. There were way too many "in your face" close-ups of the people singing, and the camera buzzed about so much and so obtrusively that I thought the actors would end up tripping over the power cables. The movie moved from scene to scene so rapidly and abruptly that I felt like I was seeing a highlight reel rather than a play. The need to change the scenery on stage probably provided the breathing space in the action that allowed for a better sense of the passage of time. In fact, having seen the movie, I am intrigued thinking of how it might have been staged, and I am convinced that it would have been far better as a stage play than a movie. I also think that the make up of the actors was more befitting the stage where you need to exaggerate a bit for the effects to be seen all the way to the back row. In the theater, with a projected image that can ten or fifteen bigger than life, the hookers looked more like chimney sweeps, and you don't even want to consider what the Parisians had been eating to allow Johnvaljohn to be so uniformly coated after his dredging in the sewers.

I'm guessing that if you have seen the play, you probably won't like the movie all that well. That's a guess. However, if you've never seen the play, this is a good way to get familiar with a classic tale of man's inhumanity to man and the redemption that can be found in love. Not my choice for Best Picture Oscar, but good entertainment for the buck.

Sand said:

This is one of those times that Bernie and I really diverge in terms of experience.

Our residence in Central California has made opportunities to see stage shows in San Francisco and San Jose (and in Modesto, thanks to the Gallo Center). One we had not been to see was Les Miserables.

Who knows why not? I don't. I can only say that I had only the faintest overview of the Victor Hugo story, and that I had never (possibly the only person in the modern world) heard any of its songs in full. They say of an unknown person, that he or she is a non-entity -- this musical has been a non-play to me.

Oh, but wait. Throw Hugh Jackman into the script, and suddenly, what I had little or no interest in viewing becomes a must-see. And not just him ... in the previews I saw in the theater, the haunting song "I Dreamed a Dream" made tears squirt out of my eyes.

Next step: hitting the internet to find out that Anne Hathaway actually was doing her own singing, and that the filming of the vocalists was done live -- no dubbing.

Hooked! I sat back and let the story unfold for me, and was not at all disappointed. Jean Valjean, treated like an animal for nearly twenty years, is transformed by kindness, seeing how goodness makes goodness blossom around him. When adversity strikes him again, as the dogged Javert hunts him down for breaking parole (Javert having nothing better to do) he tries to do what is right, and does, rescuing Cosette, and finding a whole new life as a responsible and capable foster-father.

And then Cosette finds a love, Marius, and Jean Valjean must watch the last phase of his life and his many sacrifices come to an end -- oh, what an end -- as he lays down his burdens and watches Cosette fulfill the promise of his life.

I loved the movie, and will love seeing it again and again in the future.

Unlike Bernie, I won't be thrilled to see it on stage; there's the cost of tickets, and the need to buy decent theater-going clothes (no, you don't go to the theater in jeans or khakis and your favorite Raider sweatshirt); there's the fact that we are never going to be able to afford seats close enough to the stage to see the actors' faces; and all the theater productions we've seen have had the singers'/actors' voices mechanically amplified, to a volume that hurts my ears. An afternoon matinee of squinting and wincing is not appealing to me. But I could, and will, watch a DVD of Les Miserables with whispered headphones, and love it to bits, from the comfort of my favorite chair.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-12-31
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