Parenthood is one of the greatest blessings of my life, but it certainly does cramp my moviegoing style. The sad reality is that I average one visit to the movie theatre every 1.5 years (no joke). But this past weekend, I broke my moviegoing fast with “Les Misérables.” 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. 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. But I haven’t seen the play, or even listened to the music, in about a decade. 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? Which aspects of “Les Miz” would speak to me now? 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). Fantine’s story is way, way more gut-wrenching on film than on stage. “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. 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) The student uprising looks a lot different when you are almost forty than when you are sixteen. I kept being struck by how young these guys looked. There was something so poignant about their idealism. 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 wanting to pull them off of the barricade and into safety. (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. 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. 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. (And I love how the movie brings him back at the end … a perfect detail.)
4) Speaking of religion, one thing that really struck me in the film was the character of Javert, and the perils of his spiritual rigidity. 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. 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. And 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, to himself. 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. 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. With his vision of God and the world pulled out from underneath him, he kills himself. 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. 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. But I guess if I had to shrink all my feelings about it into one pithy statement, it would be this: “Les Misérables” is a film that makes you want to become a better person. It really does. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me feel that way. 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? What did you think?