Parenthood is one of the greatest blessings of my life, but it certainly does cramp my Â moviegoing style. Â The sad reality is that I average one visit to the movie theatre every 1.5 years (no joke). Â But this past weekend, I broke my moviegoing fast with “Les MisÃ©rables.” Â And if you only see one movie a year, that’s the one to see. It was, in a word, breathtaking.
I blogged earlier about how excited I was to see this film, largely due to the fact that I feel under the “Les Miz” spell in high school. Â I practically wore out those cassette tapes (yes, I’m a dinosaur) with repeated use; I even got to see the stage production a few times. Â But I haven’t seen the play, or even listened to the music, in about a decade. Â So in a way, the prospect of seeing the movie raised some fascinating questions: Would the same things that captivated the sixteen-year-old me also captivate the thirty-nine-year-old me? Â Which aspects of “Les Miz” would speak to me now? Â And how would the intimate medium of film make it feel different from the largeness of a stage production?
Here is what I discovered.
1). Â Fantine’s story is way, way more gut-wrenching on film than on stage. Â “I Dreamed a Dream” is a haunting song that is more well-served by closeups and the occasional gulping whisper than when a singer has to belt it out to the back rows of a theatre. Â And Anne Hathaway was phenomenally good at showing the degradation of her character — the gradual and complete loss of her dignity made me feel literally sick to my stomach, which is a feeling I don’t remember having during the stage production.
2) Â The student uprising looks a lot different when you are almost forty than when you are sixteen. Â I kept being struck by how young these guys looked. Â There was something so poignant about their idealism. Â I realized that I was looking at these young men with an almost maternal eye, simultaneously admiring them for their fervent devotion to a cause and yet Â wanting to pull them off of the barricade and into safety. Â (There was nothing maternal about my attitude when I was in high school, a time when I had a massive crush on the guy who played Marius in the San Francisco company.)
3) Over a post-film dinner out, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about the religious elements of the movie. Â As with the play, I was so moved by the bishop at the start of the film, a man whose stunning act of forgiveness is the catalyst for Valjean to turn his life around. Â It shows how much one gesture of generous kindness can literally change the trajectory of a person’s life, and can affect countless other lives in the process. Â (And I love how the movie brings him back at the end … a perfect detail.)
4) Â Speaking of religion, one thing that really struck me in the film was the character of Javert, and the perils of his spiritual rigidity. Â In essence, the story presents two views of God: Valjean’s (and the bishop’s), who is a God of second chances and mercy and compassion; and Javert’s, who is a God of black-and-white rules and swift punishment. Â In the film, right before the song “Stars,” Javert is standing before a crucifix — an echo of Valjean, elsewhere in the movie — and that visual parallel made me think about how two men can have two very different views of the same God. Â And Â what leapt out at me in the film is that Javert’s view of God poses a danger, both to others (witness his relentless persecution of Valjean and his utter lack of compassion for Fantine) and, most of all, Â to himself. Â I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers here to say that when an act of stunning mercy is show to Javert himself, he simply can’t handle it. Â His mind, which is so rigid in its view of right and wrong, literally cannot stretch to encompass a God of mercy and second chances. Â With his vision of God and the world pulled out from underneath him, he kills himself. Â Â This really leapt out at me: that Javert represents the danger of a mind that adheres to legalism and makes God as small as we humans are, rather than being open to something greater. Â And it’s Javert himself who is the most harmed by that rigidity … which is thought-provoking.
As the days pass, I’m sure I’ll keep thinking more and more about this movie; it really is that rich a film. Â Â But I guess if I had to shrink all my feelings about it Â into one pithy statement, it would be this: Â “Les MisÃ©rables” is a film that makes you want to become a better person. Â It really does. Â I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me feel that way. Â And somehow, with all the tragedy in the world these days, a movie that celebrates compassion and the nobility of the human spirit is just what we need.
Have you seen it? Â What did you think?