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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Miserables: Why We Pay to Watch Others Suffer

Les Miserables is very old fashioned entertainment. It's a series of crescendo moments with no build-up, no backstory, no pause. It's like eating just the topping of the pecan pie, and not bothering with the crust or filling. We were just ten minutes into the movie when I had to look at my watch and ask, okay, how long can they keep this up? Climax after climax, plot twist after plot twist, tearjerking scene after tearjerking scene. Oceans! Mountains! Punishment! Suffering! Religion! Redemption! Will there be a break for lunch? Will we be able to catch our breath?

If you can watch this film without crying, I don't want to know you. The woman behind me was on the edge of her seat, not just because I smell good. The audience at the 10:40 a.m. matinee – the theater was packed – applauded at the end, and was very slow to leave the theater, even as the closing credits rolled.

Typical of big, fat, nineteenth-century novels, there are numerous implausible coincidences that drive the plot. These coincidences took me out of the movie, but that was a good thing. The human suffering onscreen was overwhelming: suicide, enslavement, exploitation of living humans' body parts, prostitution, disease, spite, malice, child abuse, starvation, sadism, a dying man escaping through very graphic sewerage. I did have to repeat to myself, "This is only a movie" even as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. He slaves for twenty years. He hauls a massive, capsized sailing ship. The scene does look like obviously fake CGI, but that doesn't make it any less gut wrenching. The workers sing, "You'll always be a slave. You are standing in your grave." They are the men we see in Sebastiao Salgado photographs of Third World laborers. They are Ilya Repin's "Barge Haulers on the Volga." Valjean's nemesis is the crazily obsessive policeman, Javert. They spar throughout the film, as Valjean's fate rises and falls and rises and falls and rises … you get the idea.

A story this big, this broad, and this implausible requires one hundred percent commitment from the performers. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean is superb. He believes. He emotes. He is as big as the story itself. Jackman is the heart and soul of "Les Miserables." I loved him. Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen – they all had me convinced. Russell Crowe was a surprising disappointment. He's a brilliant actor and I kept waiting for him to bring some fire, some ice, some power, some insight to Javert, the obsessive and punitive policeman who mercilessly hounds Jean Valjean. I wanted a memorable moment that would make me feel that Crowe's performance brought Javert to intimate life for me. That moment did not arrive.

I wondered while watching this movie whether it will be embraced by the political left or the political right. It is a deeply and unashamedly Christian film. A Catholic priest, emulating Jesus, is the catalyst. Valjean spends the rest of the film working to live up to the priest's Biblical example. "Les Miserable" is leftist in that it depicts the poor rising up, but then the poor fail their own putative saviors, and allow them to be massacred, alone. Javert, representing law and order, is a monster. The film's brief glimpse of heaven is like some limousine liberal's fantasy.

I think "Les Miserables" is as popular as it is for the same reason that Cinderella is so popular. When "Les Miserable" was a stage play, tickets were a very expensive and difficult to acquire luxury. It is ironic that a play about the wretched of the earth would be such a luxury entertainment. Why do we enjoy watching people much poorer and more desperate than we will ever be? Why do we pay for the privilege? Because we all see ourselves in Cinderella, in Jean Valjean, no matter how lucky we are. I'll certainly never stand in cold sea water with iron shackles around my wrists and neck, overseen by a cold sadist like Javert. But, along with millions of others, I saw my own struggles in Valjean, and thanked God that I didn't have it as bad as he. If Jean Valjean can go on, I can, too!

I wish the songs had been a tad better. There are a couple of good ones, "I dreamed a dream" and "Do you hear the people sing?" All the actors sing very well. Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman sing especially well.
Cosette, "Les Miserables"
Ilya Repin "Barge Haulers on the Volga." Like "Les Miserables" opening scene. 
Sebastiao Salgado. Mine workers 


  1. The Dramatic Society put on Les Miserables in our expat years. These days I usually only want to see cheerful things, but we went as a friend of ours was in the chorus, and she also had to be cut down in a heap of poor workers. She sang well, and didn't sneeze or cough or anything after she had been slaughtered.

    Having recently read "The Real Oliver Twist", I would say it is hard to over-state the misery and cruelty of the times - misery and cruelty that is still going on, of course, even as I am typing this. But I am pretty cowardly about watching fictionalised versions of it now - though I do read biography and autobiography obsessively.

    I can strongly recommend Meredith Hall's "Without a Map" by the way.

  2. Sue, thank you for this comment. I'm fully with you about the cruelty and misery. I can't understand why my New Age friends have such a rosy view of "past lives." I think the past was horrible, esp for women, and there isn't any century that I prefer to our imperfect present. In spite of all the evil that still exists, we have made progress. At least cruelty is not "normal" child rearing. At least cats aren't burned alive for popular entertainment, as they were in the Middle Ages, if a village ran short of people to burn alive. With painful slowness, humanity is inching forward. Good movies enlarge our empathy.

  3. We're not evolving. There is just as much suffering today as there was in Victor Hugo's day.

  4. What made a big difference for us, here in the UK, and speaking as a child of the post-war baby boom, was the newly established welfare state. But, as with all human solutions, it has proved far from perfect. As the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah warned: "It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step."

    And the conditions of child slave labour described in "The Real Oliver Twist" still exist in so many parts of the world.

    I have to agree we are not evolving. I believe that Genesis is true history and that we are still on a long fall from a state of perfection. But with a real hope of a return to that state! And to the Paradise we were always meant to be living in.