“Les Miz”, as an adult

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?

5 Responses to “Les Miz”, as an adult

  1. Ginny, this film is remarkable in so many ways. I especially agree with you about the agony of Fantine and how Anne Hathaway performed.

    And yes – it does make you want to become a better person.

    One last thought. I first read the book in high school, then again in 1988, I think. That reading blew me away, much more than HS in 1974! (Who is a dinosaur now? :-) ) I saw the play a few times during the late 80′s and early 90′s. So why was it not until now that I was left with such a deep feeling about this one final moral ambiguity… despite being such an amazing person, redeemed and transformed in every way, Valjean is always living the lie of not being who he really is. I had thought of this before, but not quite in the same way.

    In any case – I loved the movie. And my high school age step-daughter, who had not read the book or seen the play. “That may be the BEST movie I have ever seen.” I loved hearing that!

  2. I saw the movie this past weekend also and thought of you so much. I thought it was beautifully done. I fell in love with it all over again and have been singing “One Day More” in my head ever since.

    The bishop is one of my favorite characters, and I loved how somehow in the movie you see, more clearly, how repeatedly Valjean seeks sanctuary in the Church (in God) and finds it. Because, while that first conversion moment is key, God is always continuously calling us back to him – it’s a journey.

    I also loved when Valjean gave Javert the rosary. From there, Valjean’s love of enemy” increases from prayer (offering a rosary) to actually risking his life to save Javert. The whole thing was like a mini (musical) retreat.

  3. How funny that you post this now! I saw it with my girls yesterday too – the first feature movie I’ve been to in at least eight years! I have always been deeply moved by the story and have discussed it frequently with my kids as we listened to the music, so we were all familiar with the story and its meaning.

    I was disappointed in the movie itself; to me, it merely filmed a play (mostly beautifully), but missed an opportunity to capitalize on some of the unique storytelling possibilities available in this different modality. I especially disliked the make up of the poor, which seemed ghoulish and dehumanizing rather than dismal and realistic. And much of the singing made me cringe. But I love the book and the production and feel great loyalty to it and so am glad others had more positive reactions. And I did love many of the voices and thought that the acting was superb.

    I have always been most drawn to the Javert/Jean Valjean tension, perhaps I relate to both of them, have sympathy for both of them, for they are both doing their best in their terribly flawed ways (one more successfully than the other) to seek justice and God. I’ve discussed this tension to my girls from the perspective that it is a reminder to continuously seek God, to understand that at our best we have to approach the knowledge that we do have with humility. I think that this is what I do love most about the story – not black and white/ good and bad, but understanding that villains are also victims, that heroes are also flawed. There is something beautiful about that messy reality, that within in people are seeking something better and are doing so with God.

    Sorry to go on so long, but this is a favorite story! :-}

  4. Marjie Murphy

    Beautifully said, Ginny! I watched it yesterday too and was thinking of you. I was in tears more than once, and was also struck by the depth of characters, the religious sense, and the dichotomy between the two men. I had hoped my 10-year-old would love it, but not so…maybe in a few years.

  5. I love the musical, and was hesitant to see the movie after reading some negative reviews. Will definitely try to fit it in, although my movie fast may beat even yours (if taking the kids to an animated film doesn’t count). Thanks for the insights, Ginny.