In Defense of “Les Miserables”

Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables has received much praise in recent weeks, including multiple Oscar nominations. It topped the list of the “most redeeming films of 2012” (a nebulous distinction, to be sure) that my film critic colleagues and I voted on over at Christianity Today. But the film has also had its naysayers and outspoken haters, most notably David Denby’s amusingly snooty takedown for The New Yorker, in which he employs a prodigious array of negative adjectives (“terrible,” “dreadful,” “overbearing,” “pretentious,” “maudlin,” to name a few) to underscore his scorn for the popular movie.

Among Denby’s critiques (they are legion) is his disapproval of the prevalence of extreme closeups in the film’s depictions of the actors singing their big solos–a device which is, indeed, the film’s most noticeable and polarizing stylistic feature. Writes Denby: “How strange to have actors singing right into the camera, a normally benign recording instrument, which seems, in scene after scene, bent on performing a tonsillectomy?”

lesI actually quite appreciated the camera’s tendency to go to extreme close-up. In adapting a beloved stage musical like Les Miserables, Hooper wisely opted to keep much the same (the songs, the period costumes, the overall showmanship). But he also wisely recognizes the inherent differences between the medium of the stage and the screen, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of those forms. The ability of a camera to direct an audience’s attention to specific images at specific times, and to get close enough to faces to capture the slightest nuance of emotion, is one advantage film has over the theater, for example. Watching something like Les Mis in a theater, one gets the experience of the music and the broad scene of a stage full of sets, props, and actors, but one misses out on the intimate expressions of the actor’s faces (unless you are sitting in the front row, perhaps). Film, paradoxically, perhaps, can bring the viewer closer to the action and allow them to be more intimately engaged with a particular actor’s embodiment, gesture, presence. In adapting the musical to the screen, then, Hooper is simply using the medium to his advantage by bringing to the story some elements the stage cannot.

Does the result come across as heavy-handed and emotionally “overbearing,” as Denby suggests? Perhaps. But the almost confrontational emotion and physical directness of Les Miserables seems to me to be less narrative laziness as an earnest attempt to create a visceral experience that conveys universalities through resonant tableaus of image, sound and action.

All films (all narratives, really) are, in the end, curators of moments and consolidators of emotions that help us to see more clearly things that are true about existence. Andrei Tarkovsky, who described filmmaking as “sculpting in time” (“pick[ing] out and join[ing] up facts taken from a ‘lump of time’ of any width or length”) once wrote that art is “a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called ‘absolute truth.’”

As such, art is an editorial process: One shot is chosen over a host of others because it most clearly conveys a specific idea. One brushstroke better captures a real-life gesture than another. One sentence is omitted because the idea can be expressed without it. Language itself is a system of ordering symbols we call words in just the right manner, and usually in the most economic fashion possible, so as to focus one’s attention on exactly the thing that is meant to be understood.

All of this to say: I think one of the problems people have with a work like Les Miserables is that its mode of narration (“sculpting in time” to use Tarkovsky’s expression) is perhaps too ambitious and comprehensive, while at the same time too concise. It attempts to consolidate too much, to assemble a massive array of moments that are each so loaded, so full of emotion and existential plight. To some, the cumulative effect feels too forceful, too dramatic, too sentimental. It may make some viewers (like David Denby) simply exhausted.

But it also makes many, many other viewers incredibly emotional. It moves people. Why is that?

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post this week, eloquently reflected on why Les Mis made him cry to the point that he had to explain to his sons why he was “weeping for the imaginary suffering of fictional characters played by highly paid actors”:

People have been attracted to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for more than 150 years precisely because it is a comprehensive rejection of skepticism. At 1,400 pages of suffering, vulgarity, pity, fury, revolution, worship and self-sacrifice, comprehensive is the right adjective. Other great romantics reveled in nihilism. Hugo gave the brief for life… [Hugo’s] great book is a vivid description of the workings of grace. Valjean begins as a hardened prisoner. He is shown mercy and learns to show it. He is hunted through a series of resurrections — emerging from a live burial, from the sewers of Paris. His nemesis is broken by his moral certitude. Valjean is saved by his sacrifices. He learns love by raising a daughter, and then the far reaches of love by giving her away. The ending is not particularly happy. Handing over his child to the future also leaves the protagonist broken. In the end, he has surrendered everything he possessed except God. But that is enough. … So perhaps my sons will someday understand there is much to learn about being human from imagined lives. From Hugo and others, they may gain some skepticism about skepticism. They may even eventually discover why it is difficult for a father to contemplate giving up his children to the future, in the long, natural sacrifice of the best things about us. And I hope they will find, as Valjean does in the end, that “there is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” Which is worth a few tears.

Some may be (understandably) skeptical of any movie that can bring so many people–even grown men like Gerson–to tears. Surely a movie like that must be manipulative, saccharine, simplistic, right?

I think we should consider the possibility that it may simply be because that’s what art does. In its quest to reflect our world back to us, or perhaps to show us a fantasy world or eschatological vision that is foreign to us, art can strike us in the deepest places of our soul–those pining places beyond day-to-day emotions; the reservoirs of existential longings so often only stirred up by beauty and art.

Movies especially are a form of art prone to elicit such emotional, existential responses. Movies can capture, probe, explore the tangible world in ways no other medium can. We feel the texture of a silk dress in Anna Karenina. We smell the blood-splattered cotton in Django Unchained. We languish at the sight of Anne Hathaway’s tormented face — every line and wrinkle of which the camera so painfully exploits. Movies are visceral.

In a movie, the raw materiality and physical geography on which the story plays out (i.e. nature, sets, bodies, props) can resonate with us as much as the story itself. This is reality, shooting out at us in flickering light. Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed that the primary function of cinema was to open up reality and re-focus the spectator on the mundane and everyday elements of life that are typically taken for granted. It is through this encounter with the “texture of everyday life” that cinema serves to reconnect humanity with its estranged material habitat, urging us to look closer and see the world for the concrete thing that it is.

This re-connective power of cinema–which among other things fosters a potent, immersive empathy between audience and whatever action transpires among the flickering pixel players–is so striking that it leads some viewers to build up defense mechanisms so as to resist its affective force. This is one (but not the only) reason why some respond to Les Mis with such skepticism. It’s a movie that embraces, unapologetically, the power of cinema to consolidate the extremes of human experience in such a way that audiences can’t help but be moved.

That is, if the audience is willing to suspend disbelief and accept that yes, a movie is movie. People don’t really sing every emotion and monologue that runs through their mind. Our experience of the world doesn’t jet back and forth in time and space, covering decades in the span of a few hours. Movies are artifice, symbols of truth. But so is all art. So is all language. Without these methods of “assimilating the world,” how could we live?

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  • Simeon

    I found Megan McCardle’s take on the Les Mis critics interesting. Megan’s not a social conservative by any means nor a christian AFAIK. She honed in on the preference for meaninglessness-as-the-point among the intelligentsia and asks why this should be so (speaking of “The Gray” as a contrasting movie):

    “It is notable that critics found this considerably more admirable than the life-affirming, panoramic saga of Les Misérables—found
    it more admirable precisely because it is tedious and small and offers
    the “message” that life is meaningless and rather horrible and yet
    nonetheless, all too short. This seems like a rather stupid criteria for
    enjoying art. I mark myself as unsophisticated for having liked Les Misérables—but what is more adolescent than the notion that futility and horror are the secret truth of life?”

    I find myself recoiling from the saccharine platitudes of much of evangelical’s Kincadian “art” – but real moments of hope, faith, and love shine brightly when they occur and have the power to touch us deeply. There isn’t anything immature or less than artistic about that.

    • Josh Lowery

      Very glad I read the comments. Thanks a LOT for the Daily Beast article mention. Super read.

      • Simeon

        Glad you found it – I had a link in there but I suspect Disqus comments automatically strip out links…

  • http://www.facebook.com/julie.brainard.14 Julie Brainard

    Brett, Brian Miller forwarded your review and I loved it! Thank you so much for this. As I stated in my facebook share, I loved the method of filming, and live singing. I thought it was intensely revealing and emotional…and as an odd side effect I felt like I was seeing these iconic actors as real people for the first time. They weren’t able to hide. Excellent acting for sure, but as a former amateur actress myself, I know well that each part brings something of you into it. I found it uniquely unifying. If that makes sense. And I enjoyed watching the thought process of Tom Hooper as he chose which actor to close in on in songs with multiple threads. (such a common and extraordinary part of the music of Les Mis). It was intriguing and moving.

  • Andrew Haines

    Brett, thanks for this. Your insights about the scope and ambitions of the work—and especially the film adaptation—are spot on. So too, I think, is your general appreciation for the risks and rewards that cinema can confront us with.

  • Josh Lowery

    Thanks in particular for using David Denby’s emotionally stunted screed in the New Yorker as a spring board. That thing stunk to high heaven. Gerson’s observation that Les Mis is a “comprehensive rejection of skepticism” hits the bullseye. I’d be interested in a deeper evaluation of Denby’s assertions about what constitutes “genuine emotion,” too (the unresolved tragedy of “Rigoletto” is supposedly more genuine than the largely resolved tragedy of “Les Mis”?).

    Very helpful post.

  • Christopher Benson

    Brett: Unlike David Denby and other critics, I wasn’t bothered by the
    extreme close-ups because I recognize that the director is exploiting
    the potential of film as a medium. In fact, I thought “Les Miserables”
    was visually accomplished. And I don’t need any persuading about the
    merits of the story; it’s beautiful, deep, and redemptive. But your
    defense doesn’t address what I perceive as the greatest weakness of the
    film: its vocal poverty. For anyone who has seen the stage musical and
    grown up with the soundtrack, the film will be an utter disappointment
    because the Hollywood actors, who are chosen for their name recognition and
    not their vocal talent, simply can’t sing with the virtuosity of their
    Broadway counterparts. As a result, I wanted to plug my ears most of the
    time, especially when Russel Crowe crooned. Even Hugh Jackman, with his
    background in musical theater, was terrible. In conclusion, I happily
    allow for differences between the stage version and the film version,
    but a musical has got to feature top-notch singing regardless of the
    version. Tom Hooper’s cast was, by and large, populated with
    mediocre to poor singers. What say you? –Christopher

    • http://neonepiphany.com/ Eden

      My rule of thumb after seeing this movie was that everyone 30 and under and 60 and over acquitted themselves quite well, vocally. That leaves Jackman and Crowe, whom you name, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who had already proved they could not measure up to the Sweeney Todd score.

      • crashtx1

        I gather if your ears are so particular you have trouble going out in public. I have found two types of people, those who love the movie(99.99% of those I know, including those with formal vocal training) and the other .01% who are a bunch of want-to-be snobs.

        • http://neonepiphany.com/ Eden

          Actually, I really liked the movie*. Mostly because I didn’t judge it by vocals alone. I thought Jackman emphasized acting over singing (given he had to pick one with Hooper’s decision to do live singing). Crowe did what he could given impossible odds and I found that endearing. What worked against him was that his worst vocal performance started off the film, and he spent the rest of the time trying to make up for it. And when he didn’t sing he acted the hell out of the part.

          I don’t think it was the intended effect for Javert, but I kind of just wanted to hug him and say “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.”

          As for the Thernardiers, I’ve never really liked them as characters at all so it didn’t bother me at all that the performances weren’t to my liking. Although it was Sacha Baron Cohen’s choice to use an accent that floated between French and Cockney that was the most distracting. I know the movie’s set in France, but if only one character has the accent it’s a little weird.

          (Once Colm Wilkinson appeared on screen, I knew I wouldn’t be able to consider the film rationally at all, anyway!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/brett.mccracken Brett McCracken

      For me the singing was serviceable in most cases and surprisingly good in some cases. Only in Russell Crowe’s case was it distractingly mediocre. I think the reality of the movie-making business (and make no mistake: it’s a business) is that star power is always the most important thing in casting. Will a star attract audiences? Certainly there are scores of better singers who are also actors out there, but how many fit the bill of Hollywood star power and screen presence like the Hugh Jackmans and Russell Crowes? How many can convey the bodily and facial emotion/expression as effectively as they can sing? My conclusion with movie-musicals would be that the “movie” part (star power, stylistic panache, cinematography) typically (and understandably) takes precedence over the “musical” part. This is not to say we shouldn’t hope for excellence in the music; it’s just that in a film (as opposed to the stage, or a musical recording) there are ample other aspects to engage with beyond the music. When you’re sitting in the back of the balcony at a theater on Broadway or listening to the “Les Mis” soundtrack in your headphones, the music is more or less all you have. Not so in a movie musical.

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