Les Misérables (2012), directed by Tom Hooper, is a screen version of one of the most famous musicals of all times, adapted from Victor Hugo’s outstanding fivefold novel by the same title published in 1962. Claude-Michel Schönberg has composed a remarkable music to the first french version of the musical, in 1980, which was then recreated and appeared 5 years later in London West End Theatre, where it is continually being played for almost 29 years now. Both novel and musical immediately became very successful, thus over several years a large number of various film adaptations were made. However, not until 2011 has the production of film musical started despite the fact that plans of setting it to film has already started in the 80s. The reason why I chose to analyse the storytelling characteristics of this particular movie is mainly because I consider it to be a rare example of a Hollywood movie, which is widely accepted by audience and still remains valuable through revealing a moral virtue and a strong Christian message.
The movie illustrates French society in 19th century, the time of its diametrical changes caused by French Revolution, as a background for the story of a long lasting conflict between two men. After 19 years a slave Jean Valjean, known as 24601, punished for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks his parolee and manages to escape. Searching for a way of survival, he steals some silver from the Bishop and gets caught red-handed. He experiences the grace of God through Bishop. „You must use this precious silver to become an honest man,” the Bishop says to him. “God has raised you out of darkness. I have saved your soul for God.” Afterwards, Valjean decides to change his life forever and entrusts his soul to God. However, he never receives forgiveness from Inspector Javert, who does not believe people’s change and still wants him to be punished.
Having discussed the synopsis of the plot, I find it relevant to first point out the genre characteristics. In Les Misérablesthe story is being told through song lyrics and enacted through singing and emotive body language. It is a hybrid genre film, which connects drama and romance with musical in a very fulfilling way. However, it breaks the convention of musical, by some opera arias. Seldom do we see the musicals in which there is no spoken dialogue, but only singing through the whole duration of the movie. Besides, in contrast to as it used to be done in most of musicals, there are scarcely two short dancing scenes in the film. However, that makes it more realistic.
As far as the structure of the movie is concerned, it can be divided into three acts by turning points that signal the end of one section and the beginning of another. An establishing shot of an enormous flag - a symbol of France, shown from under the water, provides us with a written information that the first act is set in France, in 1815, 26 years after the beginning of the French Revolution. First the audience is introduced to Jean Valjean, living a disgraceful life of a slave, who is presented as one of many, small, insignificant people. In contrast Javert, standing above all of them, is shown from a low angle shot, on a background of bright sky, as he is the one in power. Another crucial element of this act is a symbolic scene of Valjean’s Soliloquy, in the end of the act, which is clearly referring to the Bible. He reflects on his life and faith, as he is standing on the edge of the mountain, next to the cross. The camera movement relocates the plot to the second act throughout a visual artistic measure of a leaf rising up to a bright sky and then, as if it is a godsend, it comes back down to the streets of Paris in 1823, where the second act begins. In this one we are being introduced to three different stories: of Valjean, now known as Mayor Madeleine, Fantine and Thénardiers, which are related to each other through a character of a little girl, Cosette. In the end of act two we see Javert standing on the edge of church’s rooftop. “Lord let me find him that I may see him safe behind bars.” he is praying to God. In the end of this scene, camera goes up to the sky again and, going by the great cross on the top of the tower, it relocates the plot 9 years later to 1832, one day before the Revolution. Both scenes creates parallels between the structure and characters, as they are both standing on the literal edge of the precipice, but at the same time on the metaphoric edge between life and death and between God and sin. Extraordinarily the third act is the longest and the most important one, what works very well to the advantage of the film. All of the previous characters are gathered together in the first scene and we get introduced to a group of young, revolutionised students, who are rebelling against everything the monarchy represents. Throughout the repetition of each song, the use of diegetic music develops a motif and makes the plot structure very symmetrical. Not only can we observe parallelism in the music, but it appears in many other aspects of the movie as well. In the Epilogue we first hear the song of Valjean’s death, which congregates a several song titles in it and through this repetition connects every single part of the plot to each other. Afterwards the ones killed on the day of Revolution are shown on the Barricade, singing the song of freedom and proudly waving the flag, in contrast to how was the symbol was presented at the beginning of the movie. The way the scene is illustrated is very similar to French paintings from the 19th century. In addition we can see each actor, as if it is a moment of applause after a theatre performance. Throughout the repetition of each song, the use of music develops a motif and makes the plot structure very symmetrical. The last interesting technique in the structure is that the movie begins and ends with people singing, what creates a framing device.
Another issue to consider are thames, such as love and law, grace and redemption, Revolution and above all a theme of God. Les Misérables consists of many characteristic features of melodrama. Charles Nodier once said, that “Melodrama was the morality of the Revolution.” Therefore, the story which brings up the subject of the French Revolution is presented in the genre that has its origins in the aftermath of the French Revolution. A further characteristic feature of melodrama is the conflict between two men, from which one represents love and the other one is a law representative. Jean Valjean, a protagonist of the story, is the perfect example of love, on the other hand, Javert’s character, who is an antagonist, law. “I am the law and the law is not mocked.” he says in the scene of his suicide. According to me, the movie can be assigned to the genre of integration, as conflict arises from the difference between main character’s values. Last but not least, I would like to point to the revealing of virtue, which is love and compassion.
From my point of view, the story is very well told as well as fantastically enacted. Tom Hooper managed to engage in the film people with an extreme acting talent, as well as a singing one, even though, as he mentioned in one of his interviews, it was a huge challenge to him to find such actors. On top of that, those are people with a huge popularity, what attracts audience even more. Taking into consideration the scene of Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed A Dream(27:10-31:50), I find it a relevant example of a splendid acting style, deservedly awarded with an Oscar. In terms of cinematography, virtually through the whole song camera is in the same position and is barely moving, but only softly following her moves. On the screen we can only see a close-up of Fantine’s face, in a complete dark, on the right side of the screen. Through this artistic procedure the scene become more and more realistic and emotional.
As Victor Hugo mentions in the preface to his book, „(…) so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved (…) books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.” I must acknowledge this thesis with reference to a screen story, which became very successful and well accepted by today’s audience. “For a minute, I freaked out, wondering, what’s that odd sound on the soundtrack,” said Hooper. “I looked around and realised it’s the sound of people crying en masse.” Evoking such emoting in the audience, to my mind, is the biggest compliment that director can possibly get. In conclusion, Tom Hooper presented a timeless musical with an excellent choice of the cast. Under no circumstances will it be forgotten and will surely continue to appeal across the generations.
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