Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Miserables - The Nobility of Jean Valjean

Les Miserables is a movie that is carried by the strength of the plot. At the center of that plot is the story of Jean Valjean (pronounced "jon valjon") set during the time period of the French Revolution.

Jean might be my favorite protagonist in all of fiction. Ayn Rand admired Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Miz) because he wrote about mankind as it ought to be rather than as it is. The heroes of Hugo's works present a better version of man, an ideal to strive towards. In Les Miserables Hugo's ideal is represented by Jean Valjean.

Jean is a hero, but he represents a different version of heroism than we are used to from Hollywood movies. Jean doesn't have superpowers or gadgets that help him fight evil. He doesn't get the girl at the end, or fame or riches. He doesn't save the world.

What makes Jean stand out is that he does the right thing even when it's hard. In a world of cynical  opportunism he deals fairly with his fellow man and protects the weak. This ultimately costs him everything he has, but these costs do not enter into his decision making. The human-scale of Jean's struggles and abilities makes his story relatable and his heroism all the more remarkable.

The story opens with Jean being released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. We don't hear about what happened to his nephew but he probably died while Jean was in prison.

Jean leaves prison to find a world that rejects him. As an ex-convict he cannot find work and no inn keeper will give him shelter. Angry emotions storm inside him as he sleeps outside in the cold.

At the end of his resources, Jean attempts to rob the home of a priest and there he finds the sympathetic help he needs to break out of his downward spiral. The priest forgives his attempted robbery and gives Jean enough money to start a new life. He makes clear that the gift is not for Jean's benefit alone - he is purchasing Jean's soul to do the work of God.

This act of kindness moves Jean. He breaks his parole and makes a new life with a new name in a different town. Jean grows into a pillar of the community. He becomes a prosperous businessman and is even appointed mayor.

If Jean's story ended there we would already consider it a success story. He overcame his rough start in life  to become a respected person in a position of authority.

It is the subsequent choices that Jean makes that reveal the true nobility of his soul. Some poor wretch is arrested by police inspector Javert under the mistaken assumption that he is the parole-breaker Jean Valjean. The real Jean is tormented by this news. If he speaks, he will be condemned to return to prison. If he stays silent an innocent man will go to prison in his name and he will be free from the law's pursuit. But Jean cannot bear to let that happen. He confesses his true identity to the court and thereby forfeits his new life.

While Jean waits for the police to arrest him, he stops by the hospital to say goodbye to a dying woman, Fantine, who worked in the factory he owns. She asks him to take responsibility for the care of her daughter and he accepts. Knowing that Fantine's child will die too if he goes to prison, Jean flees town with inspector Javert on his heels.

Here his stark life is warmed by the love of the Fantine's daughter Cosette whom he informally adopts. Providing for Cosette becomes the center point of his life. They live together as fugitives, fleeing the pursuit of the merciless inspector Javert.

There are three systems of morality at odds in Les Miserables. The conflict between the visions of justice represented by Valjean and Javert is clear. But that conflict plays out against a backdrop of a world dominated by nihilistic opportunism. People live on the edge of survival and they are perfectly willing to pull down others to get a little bit ahead. This ethic is represented by the crooked inn-keepers, the Thenardiers, and several minor characters.

Against this backdrop the heartless, legalistic justice of Javert is cast in a better light. We understand his desire to impose the order of the law on a chaotic world. We understand the purpose that Javert serves in society and we might prefer Javert's world to that of the Thenardiers. But Javert's inflexibility is his undoing. He lacks the moral sensibility of Valjean that enables him to distinguish between what is right and what is merely the law.

Valjean's morality is Christian humanism. His motivating principle is not order, but compassion. He values outcome over process. Valjean forgives his former jailer Javert, echoing Jesus's forgiveness of the Roman soldiers who served as his executioners (Luke 23:34). But his primary focus is his fatherly duty to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

This movie is "uplifting" in that it shows the very best side of humanity. It is a story of grit and courage, redemption, and heroic compassion. Evil is represented not by a cartoonish villain, but by the inhumanity of the economic, legal, and social systems surrounding the characters. For love to triumph in the face of such an inchoate, all-consuming evil is hard. But Jean's determination is up to the task.

In many ways Les Miserables is conservative, even reactionary in its philosophy. It feels odd to see religion unironically portrayed in a Hollywood movie in this age. The Catholic priest is not even a killer, a pedophile, or a demon in disguise! Jean takes his duty to God seriously. And at the end, his immortal soul joins Fantine in heavenly paradise. Underlying everything is the wholesome theme of fatherly love. It is a strange time we live in when a sympathetic movie about the French Revolution could be considered a conservative work. 

The film is not perfect. I liked the music, but I didn't love it. Musical theatre often suffers in translation to film - the energy of live performers can sweep an audience up in a way that film musicals can't. At times the pace of the film drags along. It is a moving film, it is a meaningful film, but it is not a consistently entertaining film - giving some reviewers good cause to dislike it.

The director makes some questionable choices of cinematography. During musical solos the camera lingers overlong on awkward close-up shots showing the top quarter of the singer's body. More  exploitation of the advantages of the film medium could have made this a more enjoyable cinema experience.

The bottom line is that you should see this film. It will make you cringe, cry, and smile. Professional reviewers call the film "moving" - I found out that is industry code for "I was openly weeping like a child at the end of the film". I found Les Miserables to be "moving" as well.

3 comments:

  1. Nice review Jacob. Without a doubt the best screen adaptation of the best musical in history. With a flat out flawless cast wonderful direction and cinematography. Tom Hooper strikes gold once again. Three hours of near-perfection.

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  2. A French Revolution, not The French Revolution. Otherwise factually correct.

    And I agree with the cinematic flaw of closeups during the song climax used several times. They needed to review back when Hollywood regularly did musicals, or even modern Disney cartoon musicals.

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