07 May 2013


The first thing one notices about the French-language film adaptations of Victor Hugo's Les misérables, relative to the English-language ones, is that they are much longer: indeed, the shortest of the important French versions (from 1982) is nearly half an hour longer than the longest of the English versions (the 2012 musical). This has everything to do with national pride, of course; to an English speaker, Les misérables perfectly meets the famous definition of a classic as a book that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.* But it's the closest thing that to the national novel of France that exists, and thus much more important to be treated with utmost delicacy, not just as one more 19th Century book that can be run through the Prestige-O-Matic when such things are in vogue. Thus the desire to be more authoritative and faithful to the source; thus the need for extended running times, given that Hugo's text is so utterly massive that even a three-hour movie has to make cuts, sometimes savage ones.

The French-Italian-East German Les misérables of 1958 - only the second French-language sound adaptation of any longevity - manages to have things both ways: with a running time in excess of three hours, it's certainly not wanting for room to fill with bits and pieces of the book, yet it is also very much a prestige film in its own right, and not, frankly, to its benefit. It was shot in Technirama, for one thing, which tells us pretty clearly what arena it intended to fight in: this was to be a big honking epic to compete with all those U.S. imports that were such a big deal at the time, but instead of being a historical drama from the ancient world (as most the the American epics were at that time, along with their Italian knock-offs), it was going to throw lots of money and sober-minded seriousness at the most respectable book in France. And oh, how it ends up being very polished and impressive altogether! It's every inch the kind of movie that you imagine the nascent Nouvelle Vague existing in opposition to, with its somewhat stuffy, inflexible style.

But I do not come to unceremoniously bury the '58 Les misérables, no matter how stilted and square in its mid-century way. The fact is, it's a pretty terrific and comprehensive adaptation of the book, and inasmuch as that's a good thing in and of itself, this adaptation has to be counted as a satisfyingly dense, complex, and thoughtful version of the story. None of the flimsy reduction to melodrama that marks each and every one of the American-produced movies! The script that Michel Audiard (father of current world cinema darling Jacques Audiard), René Barjavel, and Jean-Paul Le Chanois (the last of whom also directs) carved out of Hugo's dense encyclopedia of French culture in the 1810s-'30s is a pretty dense, complex thing itself, going so far as to dramatise a brief portion of the novel's flashback to the battle of Waterloo (though not at the point it occupies in the original structure). It grapples earnestly and directly - and for a non-French viewer, with gratifying clarity - with the political underpinnings of the June Rebellion of 1832, while depicting with some detail (though less than the book) the social context that made that Rebellion happen in the first place. All of this is wildly exciting, coming off the English adaptations (the most recent of which was only six years old at this point), which so cautiously neuter the populist message of the novel and make it a somewhat generic uprising that may or may not be connected to anything in particular.

It is, of all the versions I have seen, even including the exquisite 1934 adaptation, the one that is truest to the book's structure: each of the five volumes is covered in more or less the same time, though it does skew a little heavily toward the first part, "Fantine". This, in turn, give it a feeling awfully like reading the book in condensed form: the story unfolds in roughly the same pace, giving roughly the same importance to each element (as compared to the custom of American and British versions to heavily emphasise the first fifth). The rise of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Jean Gabin) to become mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, his subsequent entanglement with icy policeman Javert (Bernard Blier) and his attempt to save the life and soul of desperately poor prostitute Fantine (Danièle Delorme) is no more or less important than the experiences of the law student Marius Pontmercy (Giani Esposito) and his next-door neighbors, a family of petty thieves called the Thénardiers (who, as we all know, were holding Fantine's daughter more or less hostage until Valjean liberated her). The result is a Les misérables that breathes and flows, that gives exactly enough time to each of its plot threads that we can comfortably see the shape of them, and understand what element of a grand social narrative they contribute to, and not a second more (though the film's sidelining of Gavroche almost completely is a weird choice, and cheapens his tragic death)

Which is all as much to say: if you're looking to dodge out on a reading assignment, this is easily the Les misérables of choice. I cannot swear that it has much else to highly recommend it, though the potency of Hugo's narrative is such that any reasonably complete and accurate retelling of it can't help but capture much of its moral and spiritual impact. But there's cheating your way into it, and earning it - Raymond Bernard's version, in 1934, earned the hell out of it, and is a great film because it is a great film, not because it steals gravitas from Victor Hugo. Le Chanois's attempt is certainly not a great film: a lavish and involving film, with some truly astounding sets and costumes for a European production in the '50s, and extreme opulence fans could have a field day just wallowing in the film's immaculate sense of place and time (its staging of the barricade built by the student revolutionaries has a geographical sensibility, as revealed in several grand wide shots, that most film versions lack), and enjoying the way that the sprawling Technirama frame captures the film's fussy reconstruction of Paris.

But these things, however wonderful a spectacle they create, don't add up to a great film. There's simply not much life to the filmmaking: Le Chanois is stage tableaux rather than blocking scenes half the time, and sometimes this works well (the funeral procession for Republican icon Gen. Lamarque, the final fight at the barricades, Javert's suicide - probably the best I've seen in any version, relying solely on implication and Blier's excellent facial acting), but often it sucks all the life out of the movie, reducing the action the pantomime. This is an impression that's certainly not assisted by the exhaustive, pandering narration, delivered by Jean Topart in a richly expressive tone that doesn't disguise the fact that we're being told a story, not shown it, even when the narration is patently unnecessary. As much as the direction locks us out of the story, the narration really puts a box around the movie, insisting on its artifice and making the whole thing feel inordinately limp.

The flipside is that the film has an impressive cast, some of whom are badly treated by a dodgy sound mix and obvious dubbing. Not all of the performances are good: Silvia Monfort makes for a swoony, dim Eponine, but she looks better for the part than any other actress I can think off - not ugly, but certainly not glamorous, exactly the sort of grubby, plain girl the character needs. And some are merely not-bad: I can think of nothing particularly enthusiastic to say about Béatrice Altariba's Cosette other than that I did not find her to be a shrill ninny, but a complete, motivated woman, and that's huge for Cosette, who even in the book is a bit too much to take.

In the big parts, where it needs it, though, the film soars. André Bourvil's Thénardier (a character given unusual prominence in this adaptation) is a fascinating take on the simpering character, a comic actor giving a dramatic performance and finding in the contrast between the two states a kind of wily, sniveling register that feels awfully great for a character that never seems entirely distinct in most films. Blier's Javert is a spectacularly off-model bit of casting that works amazingly well: the chubby sad-sack appearance of the actor, and his alternation between harsh and bored line deliveries, makes for an antagonist who's not an implacable policing monster, but a particularly stubborn and unimaginative bureaucrat, a take that's so obviously baked into the character that I'm a little shocked that I would never have conceived of it.

The stand-out, and easily the best reason to see this Les misérables, though, is obviously Jean Gabin, who was the least creative possible choice to cast this part in France in 1958, but that's only because he was so damn perfect for it. The actor had been an icon in France since the '30s, and part of what makes his performance so magnificent is the accrued meaning of what "a Jean Gabin character" had come to mean by '58: an intelligent but somewhat irascible and dangerous mountain of a man locked away in his his own head. All of which describes the novel's Valjean rather perfectly. Nor does Gabin just coast on his persona, but uses it as a shortcut to making his take on the famous character seem organic and worn-in, a performance where all the years and torments of the narrative seem to radiate out of the actor rather than rest on top of him. By all means, I love and respect Harry Baur's performance in the '34 Les misérables, but I think Gabin might just be my very favorite take on the character: gruff and loving (the way he plays the final goodbye with Cosette fully justifies sitting through the whole three hours preceding it), physically strong and emotionally fragile, not remotely re-imagining the way Hugo portrayed the character, but an almost unimprovable embodiment of him, the platonic ideal of the literary icon given flesh.

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