More Reactions to Les Miserables, Mainly Comprising My Response to a Review of the Film

01Alright, finally, I’m gonna talk about…wait for it…Les Misérables! Ok, so I’m sure many people have been talking about this. Scratch that, I KNOW many people have. Some have praised the new film to the skies, other have touted how horrible it is. One such review with the latter attitude saddened me (though it was well-written and rhetorically successful), as Mr. Walsh did not simply dislike the movie, but had problems with the story as well. It is unclear as to whether he is familiar with the story as presented in the book, but he found it extremely distasteful, “vapid, shallow, predictable, self indulgent and emotionally manipulative.” Well, isn’t most good art emotionally manipulative? One of its functions is to make you feel something in connection with the characters. And we know that, so we go into movies expecting to be made to feel a certain way. That’s one of the things Aristotle (I think it was him, anyway; maybe it was Plato in Republic Book X when he talks about poetry) mentions about tragedy, is that it allows the viewers to experience emotions they might not otherwise experience outside of seeing them expressed by performers on stage. Is this important? I think so, because I think it helps us to connect with people, to feel compassion and get outside of ourselves.

Another criticism of Mr. Walsh’s is that all the songs are the same:

But let’s talk about the “big” musical numbers. You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

Now, he is correct in that some of the songs are about loneliness: Eponine’s “On My Own” certainly fits that category. But each song is expressing something different, even if it is sad and even if it expresses a kind of loneliness. For instance, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” isn’t about “this empty chair here [is] empty because I’m alone”–Marius is sad not simply because he is alone, but because his friends are dead. Who does not mourn the dead? The situation is made even sadder and more tragic by the fact that these young men were in the bloom of life AND that they were agents of their own tragedy, so to speak. Therefore, Mr. Walsh’s comment “all this bad stuff happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices” is not completely mal apropos–however, I believe the viewer is asked to consider not just what they did but also the ideals behind their actions, as whether the ideals were worth fighting for is a rather important question. The young men behind the barricade believed they were; obviously the rest of Paris either didn’t, or were too scared to fight. Also, just because a decision is stupid doesn’t necessarily make it bad or wrong. Often enough, putting someone else’s life before your own involves doing something typically considered stupid. Not that this is what those in the barricade were doing, but they were putting their own lives below their ideals in worth–consider Enjolras’ words to Marius, “Who cares about your lonely soul? Our little lives don’t count at all!” So it is the fact that he thinks that they might have died for nothing–“my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for”–is what here saddens Marius.

Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” describes, in one sense, growing up. It recounts the vibrancy and brightness of youth and that feeling of invincibility that young people have, and how these things are softened or, as in Fantine’s case, totally destroyed, as we age. The girl’s rosy view of the world is transformed into a woman’s disillusioned one. Does that mean that Fantine didn’t make mistakes in her life? Not at all–some of her mistakes brought her to where she is now. But let’s face it–all of us, each and every human being on this earth, in this universe, makes “inexcusably stupid life choices.” Some are more responsible for these choices than others, and some accept the consequences better than others. Fantine, innocent and naïve, believed that Tholomyes (the father of her child, mentioned in the book but not the movie) actually loved her. But it was even more his fault for using her and then throwing her away. Unlike Tholomyes, Fantine accepts responsibility for her actions, and looks for a job to support her little girl. She finds a place to leave her and finds a place to work. So this woman has actually done all that she can, in her day and age, to not make anymore stupid mistakes, and to cope with the ones she has made the best she can. In the end, it is the world around her that causes her problems–the other factory women look down on her and fire her for having borne a child out of wedlock. They ought not to have done that. So Fantine turns to the only other source of income she believes is available to her–prostitution. So “I Dreamed a Dream” isn’t just self-pity. It is a lamentation that anyone who is going through hell could give, anyone who has experienced the evils of the world. Let me emphasize that Fantine did not simply crumple into a ball and wail and do nothing after she found herself pregnant and with no support. As I said before, she did what she could, and those around her who ought to have helped her used and abused her instead. Therefore, her song should not be reduced to one of self-pity nor solely of loneliness simply because she is human and has made mistakes and is alone.

The same goes for Jean Valjean and Javert. Of their relationship Mr. Walsh says this:

Les Miserables apparently holds the Guinness world record for longest musical about a minor parole violation. It tells the utterly pointless tale of an ex-con as he tries to elude a bumbling parole officer for 20 years. This is also, it should be mentioned, the first film to show two decades pass by in real time. So if you’re heading to the theater tonight make sure to pack a change of clothes. My wife told me afterward that the movie, despite its torturous running time, actually CUT OUT several scenes from the original play. Too bad they didn’t cut out more scenes. Like every scene. Of course it didn’t have to be that long. Hugh Jackman, the criminal guy, could have just, you know, MOVED OUT OF THE FREAKING CITY IF HE DIDN’T WANT TO BE CAUGHT. Instead this whole game of cat-and-mouse between Jackman and Russell Crowe takes place in one neighborhood. The dumbest criminal of the millennium vs. a law enforcement officer that makes every Leslie Nielsen character look like Sherlock Holmes in comparison.

Firstly, I want to address the inaccuracy in this paragraph. The “whole game of cat-and-mouse” between Jean Valjean and Javert did not all happen in one neighborhood. It began in the galleys, resumed in Montreil-sur-mer, where Valjean became mayor, moves to a convent, and then to Paris and the surrounding areas. I can understand why Mr. Walsh (or anyone for that matter) might have thought that everything took place in one neighborhood because there is no explanation of movement from place to place within the movie.

However, calling the story “utterly pointless” is, in my opinion, also inaccurate, even if it is the truncated and reduced form presented in the film. The point of Jean Valjean’s conviction for stealing a loaf of bread is that the laws were ridiculously harsh and out of tune with common sense. It helps to show how the people in the lower echelons of society were treated in that place at that time in history. Again, the parole violation of theft that they believed him to be guilty of (though he was not) is small, but that is looking at it from today’s point of view. As I said, the original conviction is meant to show the ridiculousness of the law enforcement (and perhaps the government) at the time: the pursuance of the parole violation is just a part of that.

I will say that I did not particularly like Russell Crowe in the role of Javert. So perhaps Crowe’s Javert was bumbling. However, in the book, Javert is quite the opposite of bumbling: he is smart, cool, calculating, relentless. And he serves as a foil for Jean Valjean–hardened by his life that began in a prison, Javert is a Valjean who does not meet the Bishop, and so has no experience of mercy and kindness. So he serves an important function both in and of himself and as contrasted with Jean Valjean.

This post is long enough, and it’s probably incoherent enough, so I will simply end by saying that I respect and accept the fact that Mr. Walsh dislikes the new movie of Les Misérables. However, I politely, respectfully disagree with his criticism of the story that the movie tells. I believe it is meant to do more than just tell us a story–it is meant to get us thinking about how we treat others, especially those who suffer extreme evils, and about repentance, redemption, idealism and realism, and youth and age. It’s not just meant to be entertainment–it’s food for thought. Though I do believe that even on a superficial level the movie can move us. Because after leaving the theatre having seen that movie, having cried for 3/4 of it, I came out wanting to do all I could to prevent things like these from happening in the world. Obviously, that doesn’t mean I went out right away and volunteered somewhere or anything (feelings ARE fleeting) but feelings are part of what moves us, and if something like the movie Les Misérables can connect us with what we’ve never experienced and motivate us to do something about, then I say, hear, hear!

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One comment

  1. Lesley Goodman · February 10, 2013

    Thank you for writing this.

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