I’m not a Les Miz person. That is, I don’t know all the words to the show; I can’t keep the characters straight; and I didn’t see the Broadway production until well into its run, when the actors seemed tired and the audience was mostly comprised of people who didn’t speak English. I wasn’t, in other words, waiting with baited breath for the film adaptation.
But since my girlfriend is a feminist musical theatre scholar, who happened to write a bang-up op-ed about the film’s gender politics for the Washington Post, I did of course see the film and can’t help but weigh in from my own non-specialist position. Stacy (Wolf), of course, is right (despite all the horrible flaming and feminist-bashing on the Washington Post comment section under her essay)—the women do nothing but provide a passive romantic background for the central action of the male characters.
That said, Anne Hathaway, in her brief appearance as the doomed Fantine, really does put over that song. As she sits up from her most recent degradation, shaking off the stench of the man who’s just raped her (throwing coins at her as he leaves), she convinces you that underneath her poverty-driven (and obviously make-up department produced) grime, she’s a golden-hearted woman who just fell on bad times. Her voice is lovely, but mostly, she acts the song, and she’s a terrific actor—that’s what makes it so effective.
But pauvre Anne! To see her beautiful hair shorn off by the horrible, manipulative also-poor people to whom she has to turn to raise money to pay her debts; to see her fall into prostitution; to see her degraded at every turn as she tries to provide for her child . . . it’s probably a good thing she’s only in the film for 45 minutes. How much more abject can you get? And is one good song worth it?
Hugh Jackman is sweetly sincere and quite believably tuneful as Jean Valjean, the wronged ex-convict who has spent 19 years in hard labor because he stole a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving son. His religious conversion, once he’s released on parole, persuades him to begin his life anew, using the silver he’s stolen from a kind-hearted priest to seed his new, righteous business and political ventures.
But what about all that religiosity? What about all those close-ups of Jesus on the cross, and the two times Jackman/Valjean shoulders large heavy wooden objects highly reminiscent of Jesus’s burden? Why make him so obviously a Christ figure? And why play out this battle to the death between Valjean and Javert, his former jailer, on the basis of their separate but parallel beliefs that they alone are doing god’s work?
I don’t know why I’m asking why—the narrative wants to redeem both men, as well as the abject Fantine, by giving them religious alibis. All those songs about going home to god sound a bit too reminiscent of contemporary evangelicalism for my taste. Why not comment on all that, or do something creative with it, instead of faithfully (if you will) pointing up and even emphasizing the musical’s religious undercurrents?
Likewise, what about that obsession Javert has with Valjean? How homoerotic is that? Is Javert so eternally preoccupied with his nemesis really just because Valjean skipped out on his lifelong parole and defied Javert’s power? And hey, why don’t these guys have wives? Why does Javert kill himself when he realizes that Valjean’s kindness means that his own quest for vengeance now has no meaning? Sounds suspiciously like tortured love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name to me.
Javert’s obsession and Valjean’s continual flight from his vigilante justice becomes comical in the film, given that the even though we’re told that eight or nine years pass between various scenes, Javert keeps hovering about in Valjean’s life like gas from a bad meal. And the film’s set—created on a sound-stage—is so claustrophobic and visually one-dimensional, it looks like none of the characters ever move house. Instead, Les Miz seems like a French-inflected, music-accompanied, Hugo-inspired version of Groundhog Day—the characters wake up to repeat the same scenes over and over again, which makes it difficult to sustain any kind of narrative tension.
Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) does a nice job as Marius, the would-be revolutionary who’s actually an aristocrat. Redmayne’s fleshy lips and yearning countenance—on a face full of interesting planes that reminds me a bit of Willem Dafoe’s—let him play wounded, dreamy longing very well. And Redmayne, too, turns out to have a decent enough voice to make it through Les Miz’s endlessly repetitive songs.
But the politics of his character go unremarked in the film. Valjean saves him from the King’s men’s assault on the barricades by carrying the wounded younger man on his back through the sewers as Marius’s comrades die. When the so-called revolution ends, however, Marius returns to the upper-crust family he’d foresworn (and course of gets the girl, the lovely, loyal Cosette, played with worried longing by Amanda Seyfried). After one song where he mourns his fallen fellow fighters, he’s back in his grandfather’s estate throwing a grand old wedding party.
Although the film ends with the dead risen and returned to the barricades in a faux demonstration of revolutionary fervor for democracy, liberty, and equality, the film’s politics are only ever conservative. The rich thrive, the poor die, the uprising fails, the guy gets the girl, the father dies so that his adopted daughter can marry (too Oedipal for my taste), and the credits role.
I guess I’m glad I saw Les Miz—one has to, given that it’s already a front-runner in the season’s awards derby. But really—Best Picture? I don’t think so. The whole thing seemed so fake, without signaling that it intended to be so two-dimensionally theatrical. The sound-stage effect make the narrative (and nearly every frame of every shot) feel claustrophobic, and director Tom Hooper’s legendary close-ups became disorienting and exhausting. I felt like I’d spent nearly three hours sitting too close to my television. (I finally agree with Charles Isherwood about something: see his Arts Beat post about his reaction to the film in the New York Times.)
But awards predictions and buzz take on a life of their own. Hathaway deserves a nomination for her performance. And Samantha Barks, who plays the lovelorn Éponine is terrific. She starred in the role in the West End stage production; her chops as a musical theatre performer, unlike most of the cast, shine from the screen. The actors, though, are uniformly good, even Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who step up gamely to play Eponine’s parents, the silly innkeepers who harbored Cosette reluctantly and then seek to profit from Valjean’s adoption of the girl.
Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter fall into easy sync as the film’s comic foils, picking pockets, stealing jewelry, and peeing in the liquor they serve with fluidly filmed, rhythmic choreography. Would that Bonham Carter could stop repeating her turn as Mrs. Lovett, in Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sweeney Todd. But it was nice to see Baron Cohen performing a maniac in someone else’s script for a change, even if his singing was more Rex Harrison-style than Broadway.
Only Russell Crowe is disappointing as the villain, Javert, though Stacy tells me that the role is difficult in the best of circumstances. Crowe seems stiff and embarrassed by this style of singing, even though he hits all the right notes. His face is strangely devoid of emotion, or maybe, like the music itself, his performance is just one-note. He looks uncomfortable, even constipated, even in the scenes when Javert prowls high above a (very inauthentic looking) Paris skyline, contemplating his faith and his fate. Maybe it’s all that repressed homoeroticism upsetting his system.
Les Miz is such an easy film on which to focus acclaim and approbation. It announces its importance at every turn, from the grand opening scene where enchained men pull on thick ropes to bring a faltering ship into harbor under Javert’s cruel gaze, to the end of Act One, when the revolutionaries prepare their fight against the king, to the finale, when those now dead martyrs resurrect themselves to gild a much expanded barricade and deliver the rousing finale.
But it’s not really about anything. And the stories it does tell—about gender, especially, and about the futility of revolution, particularly—are tired and even offensive.
Films like Les Miz (and Django Unchained, which is next on my agenda) need to be seen. But I regret spending nearly three hours on a movie that never persuaded me not to resist its insistent self-aggrandizement. After Anne Hathaway left the screen, try as I might to give in and just go with it, there just didn’t seem to be any point.
The Feminist Spectator