January 7, 2013

MOVIES: "LES MISERABLES"



At first, the musical “Les Miserables” kind of assaults the viewer with bumpy, hand-held, close-ups-only camerawork and frantic talk-singing by and about people and events we’re not invested in yet. The first human utterances in the opening scene are actually the grunts of prisoner-slaves who are laboriously pulling in a huge, extremely fake-looking CGI shipwreck via ropes, Volga boatman style. The music is immediately of the offputtingly bombastic variety and sounds like orchestrated cannon volleys. After that, it’s all uphill. I mean that it gets better and better, and slowly sucks you in till you’re crying in three places like I did. (I have heard many unabashed reports from men who have wept during this thing, too.) I didn’t find it emotionally intense or draining—just able to speak well the truth, tell a story beautifully about common experiences, evoking common human emotions. Victor Hugo’s source material is wrung dry, in a good way—like a cup of Maxwell House.

LOOK DOWN!

The film begins and ends with the sung words “Look down!” That is, look down at the suffering, the poor, those who are TOLD to look down, those who don’t dare lift their eyes up to dream…. (There is a feeling of the socially-conscious Dickens’ work to “Les Mis.”) This song reminded me of an article by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, that I have never been able to get out of my brain: "The Christ Movement Downward": http://guardianlv.com/2012/08/the-christ-movement-downwards/ 

The nemeses are introduced early: Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) towers over Jean Valjean (an almost unrecognizably tattered Hugh Jackman) who is under his merciless, but not sadistic, command.  Javert is a man of untempered justice, and has put himself under the law’s impersonal, blind eyes, as well. He believes salvation—of every kind—lies in the letter of the law.

This film is kind of my first exposure to the full story of “Les Mis”! Yes, I am duly ashamed. Never read the book, never saw the stage play. All I knew was that it involved people waving French flags around and a little waif girl seen on all the advertisements. I HAD watched an excellent 1978 version (Anthony Perkins plays Javert!) many years ago—but all I remembered were the Javert vs. Valjean parts. I still recommend this version, simply because there was hardly any dialogue in the whole thing. You had to watch this silent man, Valjean, silently enduring all that he did and silently changing and silently exercising heroic courage and mercy. Almost like mime. NO, JUST KIDDING!!! It was great.

For those still not familiar with the storyline, the crux is how two different men react to similar misfortune. But they are not polar opposites: one an angel, one a demon. Valjean was shown great mercy and kindness by a bishop that was a turning point in his life. He tries to pass this on to everyone he encounters, including Javert, but Javert’s God exacts revenge and punishment. Javert would rather live in this harsh world that he understands rather than live in “Jean Valjean’s world.” Javert is not evil, he is conflicted. He thought he was doing the righteous thing. He is so conflicted in his convictions that he wonders if Valjean is from heaven or hell. He begins to doubt what for him is indubitable. But no one is able to get through to him. Javert felt that to be truly strong and good, one must refuse mercy: FROM others for oneself and TO others. But the question is: Without mercy, how can anyone become a better person?

GOD IS MORE THAN A CHARACTER

There is so much GOD simply and naturally interwoven in the lives of the characters—who were all pretty much believers. God is THE reference point. Different interpretations of what God desires, but He is always just a thought or prayer away. Director Tom Hooper said: “We live in a selfish age, obsessed with how we project various versions of ourselves. But you have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists. And what God means in practice is the act of compassion, the struggle of living your life in a moral way.” It's truly a different mindset.

The action takes off immediately. There’s no dilly-dallying. A colorful, rich, but uncomplicated network of characters enter the story very naturally, and we get to know them very quickly and very intimately—probably because we see the most fateful events of their lives which they then proceed to sing about, revealing their inner discourse to us, something that is usually restricted in the medium of (purist) film.

In fact, EVERYTHING is sung, people! A few running-start spoken words might get us into the song, but this is a musical with a capital “M.” It may sound tiring, but it really works. If you are not a fan of musicals (I am not a foe of musicals, but not a particular fan unless it’s really, really good), it will work even better for you, because instead of enjoying the acting/dialogue and then having that sixth sense suddenly kick in: “Oh no…this is leading up to a song…I can feel a song coming on…oh no, here it comes…oh no, they’re breaking out in song…Arrrggggh!” and waiting in agony for the song to finish, you are just swept along by non-stop singing. The syllables are often extremely short and staccato, almost like speech, so you tend to forget they’re even singing. There are incredible duets and even three or more people singing at one time, in their own scenes, in their own locations, as the song applies to THEM. These parts are just pure genius. You can hear clearly what everyone is singing, and even if their lives might be only remotely connected, the truth is that we ARE all connected by these very, very realistic situations each one finds themselves in: forced to compromise, dire financial straits, tough decisions, unrequited love, separated lovers, begging mercy, showing mercy, paying dues, taking up a cause, etc. There’s kind of “something for everyone,” big chunks of life—without being overstuffed. Totally cohesive and unified plot/execution.

The singing by the well-known cast is MORE than adequate. Each one has a very pleasant, entertaining, expressive voice and ACTS through the song incredibly well.

COMIC RELIEF & THE ONLY FRENCH ACCENT

The songs, as opposed to the musical dialogue, are not your typical choruses/verses/big finales which can be exhausting. They are personal accounts and reactions to the drama going on around the characters. There is also comic relief in the likes of two married con-artists played to the nines by Helena Bonham-Carter and the subversive Sacha Baron Cohen. I couldn’t get enough.  And may I say: there were so many Brits in this film that were singing all cockney all the time that I had to keep reminding myself: France. This is France. Sacha Baron Cohen was the ONLY one who bothered to attempt a French accent. To good effect, I might add. Sacha needs to stay with his cleaned up act and do more of this kind of acting. Like he did in “Hugo.” Cast the man in his own non-offensive funny film. I know that may be doing violence to how Sacha sees himself, what he prefers to do, but he’s just so good at this stuff.

There is a certain grittiness to the film. It’s “digital dark,” “dubious digital focus,” and skin is often exposed without makeup. The actors often drool and spit as they sing. Yes. Like opera singers probably do. Except you don’t get to WATCH opera singers drool and spit at close range. BUT because of the often ferocious emotion, you, too, would drool and spit. Trust me, it sounds gross, but it’s not THAT gross. Poor people are very scabby. And then there’s that rendezvous in the poop-plugged sewers. Blocking: the actor-singers are actually very confined to one little place when they sing—which is constantly, of course. The camera swoops around over rooftops, but the people? They really don’t move around too much.

What was up with Russell Crowe? He seemed very unconfident of his very nice singing voice and he didn’t act one iota. I mean he just stood there like cardboard. Linoleum. Flat. Dead. Listless. Lackluster. Dude!

MORE THAN A BACKDROP

“Les Mis” is MORE than “set against a backdrop.” The backdrop—that of an uprising in France in 1815 (after the French Revolution)--is an integral part of each character’s  story, even though some situations/circumstances, such as poverty, are universal and repeat themselves in every time and place. Hugo’s novel explains the historical/political at length, but the film was sorely lacking in even the most rudimentary explanations. What exactly were they rising up AGAINST (besides some nebulous injustice, inequality), what exactly were they fighting FOR (what were their demands, goals)? Fascinating to remember, “Les Mis” first published in 1862: pre-Darwin (“Origin of Species” was just published in 1859), pre-Marx, pre-Communism, pre-Socialism, pre-World Wars (however, the first “modern war” was the devastating Crimean War: 1853-1856), pre-liberation theology. Beyond practicing charity required of us by God and the Gospel, how urgent to know and live the Church's social teaching!

The overall question posed to us seems to be: Who are YOU in “Les Mis”?

OTHER STUFF:

--You do realize that Director Tom Hooper’s “King’s Speech” won Best Picture, 2011 Academy Awards?

--Tom Hooper filmed the singing LIVE (never been done before). The actors had little earpieces with a piano track with which they sang to in the scene. Full orchestra was added later. The actors LOVED it because it wasn’t canned. THE DIFFERENCE REALLY, REALLY SHOWS. RAW EMOTION. RAW PERFORMANCES.

--Where did I cry? Fantine’s song about broken dreams, Valjean’s song blessing his future son-in-law as he sleeps, Valjean’s song asking God to take him home.

--If Valjean went to the convent at the end of his life, they should have showed the nuns again. Just sayin.’ We nuns need all the screen time we can get.

--Great, soul-stirring, crowd-stirring chants of the “angry young men.” Makes revolution look cool. Sigh.
--My theater--filled with rowdy, munching young adults--got more and more hushed as film went on. And then came the sniffles.

--It amazes me how—in this day and age—people still just love to watch people simply singing: “American Idol,” “The Voice,” musicals, etc.

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: When a man falls in love, he is “lost.” The woman is “found.”

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: Eponine’s song, realizing Marius is not in love with her, is a great illustration of “women’s fantasy.”

--Valjean has no lady love. Celibate hero? If so, why? Like "Van Helsing"? (Also Hugh Jackman)

--Was quite heartwarming to see a good bishop as a pivotal character.

--Valjean dreads the day some young man “comes for” his little Cosette! Ha ha. Every Daddy’s nightmare.

--Why is Cosette the IMAGE of "Les Mis" rather than Jean Valjean? Perhaps because she changed him more than anything, anyone else.

--“The quality of mercy is not strained” (Shakespeare). When mercy is shown in “Les Mis,” it is never to shame anyone. It’s dignified. Unconditional. Valjean knows that Javert is all about duty, so he tells him: “I don’t fault you. You did your duty,” thus affirming him, theoretically making it easier for him to accept mercy.

--The very, very end went back to the uprising, which felt a little political, even though they were singing about beating ploughshares into pruning hooks and “no more war.” And maybe that was the point. The people of God will rise. Focus on the (poor) people ("the miserable ones"). From focus on Valjean to the people. Everyone.

--The great thing about this musical is that everything, everyone that needs to be--is elegized. That’s one of the beauties and functions of art: to slow everything down and take that time to reflect and say what should be said, what needs to be said, what deserves to be said.

7 comments:

  1. Kristen1:27 PM

    The closing scene always has the dead characters (Fantine, the revolutionaries) coming to escort Valjean into Paradise. This is the first time I've seen the bishop return to usher the soul he has "bought for God" into that God's presence. I loved that touch.

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  2. I also cried like a baby when Valjean realizes what the Bishop did for him and he just can't believe that someone would do that. In the "he called me brother" bit, he was heartbreaking!!! I really hope he wins the oscar over Daniel Day Lewis... do you think he can? You know, the Academy being all for actors that portray their presidents and all...

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  3. Sister, were you able to see the "coffin" motif? The big space where the prisoners were pulling the boat looked like an enormous coffin, Fantine's first "customer" brought her to a coffin like box...The cramped space where the barricades were set up...With two coffins propped up! Then at the end of the film you see larger spaces. Valjean prays alone on his deathchair (not a bed?) in a spacious prayer room, then he dies. The camera moves to the larger space of the Parisian main processional road. The dead characters sing "Do you hear The People Sing". At last, the miserable ones are now free!

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  4. I'm watching Charlie Rose interview Jackman, Hathaway, et al. in his Oscar Special. I read Les Miserables in high school and absolutely loved it. I saw Les Mis in the theatre and wasn't particularly impressed. Now that I've been to France, traveled to Compiegne, and devoured every volume in French that I can find on the Carmelite martyrs - necessitating a fair knowledge of the French Revolution - I'm less impressed with Broadway's version of Victor Hugo than ever before. Quelle nausée.

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  5. So...when are you writing YOUR book? And, BTW, wait till you hear dear Father Angelo!!!! He did such a great job. We will finish a little filming of needed visuals and place ALL the visuals by end of March, Lord willin'.

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