Les misérables from 1995 for longer than any other movie ever. I first heard about it during its U.S. run that autumn (possibly during its appearance at the Chicago International Film Festival), which was at exactly the same time that: A) I was beginning to get into non-English films, having started with Seven Samurai not long before*; B) I had just finished Victor Hugo's classic novel, and was still processing it but already coming around to the idea that it might be the best thing I'd ever read. A pretty useful confluence of events to encourage an adolescent cinephile that he just had to see this thing, but those who live in the suburbs and are not of driving age have a harder time seeing arthouse movies than others, and while the film hasn't been invisible in the intervening decades, it surely hasn't been something that Americans have had inordinately ready access to. So it just sort of didn't happen, and that's all there is to it.
I do not bring this up because I imagine that you're desperately interested in the minutiae of my autobiography, but as a way of explaining that I walked into Les misérables with quite a lot more anticipatory baggage than most films - more than it would possibly seem to deserve, for certain. And that's even after the intervening years have set me in front of a scant handful of Lelouch films, but most especially his 1966 A Man and a Woman, one of the most insubstantial movies ever broadly regarded as a masterpiece of world cinema. I am pleased to report back across the gulf of time to my younger self that Les misérables is the better film of the two (my younger self would thereupon be damned confused, as he wouldn't hear about A Man and a Woman for several years yet), though not quite a truly great work, not even close to being the best French movie titled Les misérables, and not at all the film that I've had it in my head for many years that it was, which was a more or less straight adaptation of the book set during World War II. It's something a great deal less straightforward, and in some ways more interesting: a story set primarily during that war (though it begins in 1899) with a protagonist whose life keeps echoing that of Jean Valjean, the main character of Hugo's kaleidoscopic work, to such a degree that he sometimes even imagines himself as Valjean in scenes adapting key moments from the novel, though these surely don't add up to more than 20 minutes, out of nearly three hours.
They're three hours used very well, at that, so this is very much the skeleton of the plot, hardly even a synopsis: that Valjean-analogue is Henri Fortin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), whose father was railroaded into prison on circumstantial evidence, having been found at the foot of his dead employer moments after that man committed suicide. Fortin's mother had to resort to prostitution to keep herself and the boy alive, and it's not until many years later that the boy, grown up to be a professional boxer, moving company owner, and sometime criminal, hears enough of the Hugo novel to see hints of his childhood in the tragic tale of Fantine, the decent woman driven to misery to support her daughter Cosette (I swear this is the skeleton: that's gotten us more than 30 minutes into the film already).
When WWII comes, Fortin crosses paths with Jewish lawyer André Ziman (Michel Boujenah), attempting to flee Paris with his gentile wife, the ballerina Elisa (Alessandra Martines), and their daughter Salomé (Salomé Lelouch, the director's daughter), and arrive in the safety of Switzerland. It's Ziman who introduces the illiterate Fortin to the great novel that will forever after change the big lout's fortunes; he henceforth desires to create goodness in the world, and it's for that reason that he helps to hide Salomé, as the Zimans are split by the war and sent into two uncomfortable situations: Elisa forced to act as entertainer for Nazi troops, André (with a wounded, useless leg) sent into hiding in the basement of the farmer Thénardier (Philippe Léotard) and his wife (Annie Girardot, who won her second César for her work).
There's so much that's going well here that it's almost embarrassing to start by pointing out the one thing that mostly doesn't, but it's a big deal: the Les misérables connection is frankly, not that well-used. On paper, I see exactly where Lelouch was going with this: the basic notion of a man struggling to be as good to his fellow man as possible during one of the blackest periods of human history entirely because he was inspired by the example of a great, morally uplifting book is incredibly appealing, and Les misérables is about as worthy candidate to be that book as I can imagine (and even moreso in a French Resistance drama, for the book and Hugo are important in France to a degree that we simply don't have an analogue for in America). But Lelouch never quite manages to find the right tone to adopt towards his material: one the one hand, he assumes that the audience is entirely familiar with the content of the book (which is fair), name-dropping characters like Marius and Javert with only minute explanation of who they are and why they matter; hell, even Valjean barely merits a description of what he actually does, and he's the reference point around which the entire film revolves. The flipside is that the film, having thus identified its ideal viewer as somebody who can do the work to unpack the references, proceeds to make all of them as simplified and over-explained as possible; having put a scene in that anybody whose familiarity with the source material is no great than "saw the musical one time" would still be able to identify as a narrative reference, Lelouch never fails to have one character mention, a bit later, "This reminds me of Les misérables", and proceed to explain in unnecessary detail what the metaphor is. I suppose I could sum all of this up by saying that the film assumes we've read the book, but it also assumes that we are very stupid.
(That being said, the use of two filmed adaptations of the book - the one from 1934 and from, I believe, 1913 - are generally more effectively used; subtle enough to be clever, overt enough to be useful).
The good news is that most of the rest of the film works very, very well, though the Lelouch whose romantic dramas hinge on flattening out emotion into an easily-digestible, pictorially fuzzy shape is in evidence in some of the scenes that shouldn't be nearly as glowing and classy-looking as they are; this is a film about the Holocaust and the occupation of France, after all, and you need to think long and hard about how to shoot e.g. the harrowing scene of Jews being led to their death by a traitorous guide, shot by a platoon of Nazis on a frozen lake, something Lelouch does with far too much reliance on gorgeously impressionistic night photography. A truly great filmmaker might have been able to sell this as irony, but for Lelouch and cinematographer Philippe Pavans de Ceccatty, it's just the way you shoot a beautiful frozen lake at night.
By no means do such scenes dominate, though. Most of the film is effectively staged to highlight the relationship between the poverty and class injustice that Hugo meant by "misery" with the war-wracked sense of universal hopelessness and suffering that Lelouch calls by the same word in the 1930s and '40s. If it's a bit too tastefully done to grind our faces in the daily misery of life in occupied France, the rainbow of despairing looks found on the faces of all the different cast members certainly puts over the idea that even in the absence of visible mass executions right in the middle of town every day, the constant awareness of death made the notion of carefree living unimaginable even for a very small child in those days. Better yet, the film manages to effectively play that out in the dramatisation of the scars which lingered in France after the end of the war; partially in the horrifying and melodramatic, but well-earned twist to André's story, partially in the way that Belmondo, who gives not just the best performance of this film but one of the best I have personally seen from his long and admirable career, never allows himself to look comfortable or more than temporarily happy, until the film's very last scene.
It is not, probably, worthy of the years of sight-unseen devotion I've given to it, suffering as it does from a certain strain of prestige-aware filmmaking that France tends to suffer from more than other European countries: a little too handsome, a little too conservative about putting its emotions out at the fore. But the content is simply too rousing, and the actors too eager to devour their roles and bring out the life and truth of WWII France, to end up as sanitary and safe as it feels like it could easily have done. The film is elegant in ways that you'd neither expect nor, maybe, prefer, but it is also tremendously full and rich, its depiction of the war years too complete and involving to ever write the film off as "nice" cinema. It's methodical about what it's doing and uncommonly intellectual about its approach to unlocking its narrative, and if I can't in fairness call it more than a good solid movie, it is damn good, and damn solid, and it mostly pays excellent tribute to the real life fighters and the novel that it so clearly admires.
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