Monday, May 21, 2012

Les Miz: 1934 Style

I am a huge fan of the Victor Hugo novel, Les Miserables.  And this poses a difficulty when watching  film based on the subject.  

Honestly, adaptations are tricky.  I’m very particular.  I don’t mind if a film diverges from a book some, but I want there to be respect for the material, I want it to be a work of art itself, but I want it to reflect the themes and most of the plot of the original.  This is why it is almost always better for me to have watched a movie before reading the book.  I hate the first two Chronicles of Narnia movies because I feel that they took out all the charm of the books and left us with wars filled with children.  Yet the third movie I could forgive because although they changed some of the plot, the central story of Eustace was unchanged.  The Children of Men I love because it actually delved deeper than the book, giving us the sense of misery and loss that every person experienced. 

As far as I’m concerned, Les Miserables is a complex story about a compassionate saint and the man who must judge the saint for his past.  LM was important to me in my spiritual life.  The bishop at the beginning of the book, who lied to the police to say that Jean Valjean was given the silver to sell and then he turns to Jean and says, “I have now bought your soul.”  As much as that incident inspired Jean, it also inspired me in my endeavors to be charitable and to  work to change people’s lives.  So I would be pretty particular about any adaptations that come down the pike.

I never saw the Broadway performance, but I listened to the soundtrack, and it didn’t seem to be taking its subject very seriously.  At least, not serious enough for my taste.  I watched the 1998 film and it was slight.  And why shouldn’t it be.  Admittedly, the novel is bloated (it spends a hundred pages on the battle of Waterloo to introduce a couple characters), but an 800 page novel deserves more than a couple hours.

I had heard some good things about the 1934 film so when I found it on the local library shelf, I snatched it up.  Then I found out that it was almost five hours long.  A five hour movie!  That’s insane!  How can it possibly keep my attention for that long!  But then I realized I was just thinking about it wrong.  I don’t consider a good television series to be too long.  A single season of The Wire was about twelve hours, and it was one story, but I would watch that for hour after hour.   No, it is the quality of the film that is important, not the length.  And the film is conveniently divided into three acceptable lengths. So I dove in.

The film is almost everything I could hope for.  First of all, surprisingly, it is fast-paced.  I guess I expect a five hour movie to be full of slow visuals, but this film has a story to tell, a long story, and they get to it.  It has the feel of a silent melodrama like Sunrise or 7th Heaven, except the plot is more intricate and it has many more characters.  It really feels like a miniseries.  Each of the three films have their own theme, but there is a continuing story as well.

And the well-told story is one of my favorites.  The last time I really delved into the story was watching the 1998 film.  That was right at the beginning of my work to help the homeless, to create homeless community and to improve everyone’s life.  I don’t know how much I was influenced by Hugo’s work, but I realize that my ideals in beginning this work is remarkably similar to Hugo’s vision.

A single saint can change the world.  One act of sacrificial charity with compassion and wisdom can  redirect another person.  And an extreme act of generosity can reproduce generosity in others.  Yes, I will admit that these are some of my goals.  I’ll even admit the hubris that I am attempting to be a “saint” in Hugo’s sense, in order to change the world through generosity.  Not enablement, mind you, but generosity.  And not that I have arrived as some "saint"-- as God and my wife would gladly confess-- but that has been my goal for a while.

I do not see myself as becoming Jean Valjean, as great as that man is.  I do not have his background, nor the violence in my core.  Rather, I see myself as the bishop who inspires Jean to be an even greater saint than the bishop.  The man who renounces violence and instead puts all of his resources and talents and authority into helping those who desperately need a hand up.   Jean is accused of many things: of continuing his criminal activity, of despising the “sinner”,  of rebellion.  He answers none of these accusations, but quietly continues to do the most remarkable acts of charity until even his harshest critic must admit that he, of all people in the world, does not deserve judgment.

What I have done over the last 17 years is not become a saint like Jean Valjean, but to surround myself with these saints.  People who sacrifice themselves for the ungrateful and wicked.  People who were wicked themselves—drug dealers, thieves and whores—who are now focused on helping others. 
Watching this film—experiencing this marvelous story of the making and unjust persecution of a saint—has made me realize that we have gone further, in one way, than the hyper-dramatic tale.  For we have made a community of saints. 

As for the movie itself?  I was a bit disappointed in the final third.  It slowed down some, and the scenes at the barricade weren’t as compelling for me.  Overall, it was marvelous and I would watch it again despite the length.

But I will never forget two amazing performances.  Of course, the lead performance of Harry Baur was perfect, and he gave a quiet depth of the main character that I have not seen elsewhere.  But one performance I will remember is that of Charles Vanel as Inspector Javert.  He doesn’t play it comic or overstate the judgment at all.  He is a police inspector, doing his duty, making the necessary judgments that is necessary for his work.  He isn’t actually a judgmental person, the way that most portrayals show him.  Instead, he is a normal, rational person with the natural judgments we all have.  The performance is brilliant and I wish they had given Vanel more time in his final scene to spell out his internal contradiction.

The other performance is Max Dearly as M. Gillenormand, Marius’ father.  This is a wonderfully comic performance, with his internal contradictions intact and a number of physical eccentricies. He reminds me a bit of Rowan Atkinson.   I would love to see him as a lead in his own comic film simply because he was so entertaining.

Overall, Les Miserable is a wonderful mix: inspiring, exciting and spiritually insightful.  4.5/5

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