Les Miserables (R Us)


In Slate’s Spoiler Special guest David Haglund qualifies his boy-love for the musical Les Mis as a response to protagonist Jean Valjean’s superhero like qualities: he’s super-strong, highly principled and leads a double life. He’s like the smart boy’s un-caped crusader in the hard times of the French Revolution.

Valjean's female equivalents are Fontine and, more pertinently, Eponine: both tragic heroines who fling themselves onto the pyre of male indifference. I’ve more than once felt their sacrifice is lionized because it’s preventable. Fontine dies due to illness incurred working as a prostitute—work she does to aid her daughter’s survival, not her own. Eponine’s story is less like Jean’s but equivalently solicitous of juvenile audiences--this time, young ladies. Her unrequited love for the principled, wealthy revolutionary is a perfect model for the sort of irrational and all consuming affection that marks a common adolescent experience. These characters and relationships are ideal for the operatic musical, and for Tom Hooper’s bombastic film adaptation, but they also hint at a tendency of the film, and a larger tendency of film culture, to build on dysfunctional relationships for emotional payoff.

Hooper’s determination to shoot “live singing” and make sequences from the musical more cinematic (with close-ups and crane shots) is necessary in principle; you can’t fault anyone for trying to maximize assets when adapting one of world's the biggest musicals to screen. Big is a goal: outsized sets, outsized performances, outsized catharsis are all delivered through the most cloyingly codependent vehicle ever. Martyrdom is the story's chief condition and everyone in this thing complies; the only “exception” may be Jean and he’s a “superhero.”

I haven’t read Victor Hugo's book but understand it’s fairly critical of all these elements, as well as its characters, which suggests that the phenomenon of Les Mis has reversed the book's critique into a parade of shitty judgment celebrated with overwrought emotion. The humane conclusion might be that tragedies (cinematic or otherwise) deserve sympathy, not judgement…and I wish I could come to this conclusion myself but I saw a film directed by Tom Hooper.

The concern that dogs me is how Les Mis points to an issue in American movie-going today. The multiplex is inundated with romances about damaged love interests, comic tales of manchildren and post-adolescents who pull it together only after donning tights (girls can participate if they’re 13 and sexy). Our relationship to it has grown increasingly codependent. Just because the stories are needy doesn’t mean the audiences have to be but how couldn’t they be? We’re talking about a pattern of dysfunction reliably doled out with quirks and curiosities copied from art and foreign films. David Bordwell famously wrote that art film is a genre; indie films also follow a reliable mold. Add to this the old saw “the customer is always right” and movie theater culture starts to resemble day care for over privileged toddlers: "I'm sorry you didn't like the film but it's more than half over. Let's go back inside. Would you like some more juice?"

If you feel mine is a tedious premise or it’s easy to poke holes in, I invite you to do so, but today, as we wait for Anne Hathaway to earn an Oscar for crying nakedly, relentlessly and some would say “bravely” into camera for near 10 minutes I can’t help feeling the nag of low integrity—not for Hathaway’s performance, but for the larger spectacle that’s wildly pleading for our attention and saying too little for consideration.

It’s not an awards show for the industry anymore. And Les Mis isn’t just about the French Revolution.

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