Les Miserablesby Buzz on 7/02/2013
I’m arriving late to the party, I know, but dang, this is one great movie.
It’s marketed as a musical because
marketing it as an opera would have
limited its audience appeal.
(Yes, there are six or eight spoken lines in the film;
lotsa operas have brief spoken moments.)
Almost everybody loves Les Miserables. Those who don’t typically critcize it for being over the top.
Like I said:
The whole bloody point of opera is to go completely,
totally, abso-&-#%ing-lutely over the top & in
yo face with glorious excess.
That’s why we opera fans love the medium.
That being said, what makes Les Miserables great is less the music (some nice hummable bits & a couple of show stoppers) but the story. And for that we can thank Monsieur Victor Hugo.
Hugo shows an incredible depth of understanding of the human heart, the human soul, the human condition.
He keeps everything focused, and even when one thinks he (and by extension, the film makers) is going far afield, it turns out there’s a purpose for the apparent diversion that ends up bringing the story back to the main thematic thread.
And what is that thread?
It’s the Old Testament vs the New Testament.
Les Miserables is exactly the sort of story creators should emulate when they are crafting Christian fiction.
Which is to say, it isn’t Christian (tm) at all.
Mind you, Les Miserables makes sense only in the context of being the work of an author raised in Christian culture writing about an earlier generation of that culture who were more genuinely religious than his own.
Attempting to separate Les Miserables
from that is like trying to separate
Huckleberry Finn from slavery.
Les Miserables is not an allegory.
(Compared to Les Miserables,
allegories are such pale,
There are certainly allegorical scenes and moments, but they are brief, transient, like a high diver momentarily achieving absolute perfect form before plunging back into the water. Hugo’s genius allows him to use his characters in a variety of flexible subtexts without compromising their basic literary integrity.
The core theme is the balance between law and justice, and ultimately how love in the form of grace (i.e., undeserved mercy) trumps the written code.
Javert (Russell Crowe) is never a villain, but then again, never is he a hero.
As Jean Valjean tells him, “You did your duty / Nothing more”.
His great failing is an unwillingness to recognize himself in those he prosecutes.
He comes from the same sort of background as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) but instead of recognizing “there, but for the grace of God, go I” he sees something else, something far more sinister:
A tendency to fall back into the abyss,
to become debased and depraved.
By prosecuting those like Jean Valjean, he holds the abyss at bay from himself. He denies his commonality with Jean Valjean because otherwise he loses the little prestige and privilege he grasps for himself.
He’s not a wicked man, but his fear of his own potential to fail drives him to relentlessly enforce the law against all those who stray even the slightest from the path. Consequently his motivation is wrapped up in a false belief that somehow this will keep him from being like them, and unless he can prove to the world (and more importantly, himself) that he is not like them because he follows the law to the letter, his whole raison d’etre vanishes along with the artificial barrier between him and the rest of humanity.
Jean Valjean, conversely, is a pretty despicable character at the start of the story. A petty thief who earned two decades of punishment for trying to escape, he’s filled with hate and a thirst for revenge. When finally shown kindness and compassion he responds by becoming an even bigger thief, stealing silver from the church of the kindly bishop who showed him mercy.
But when the gendarmes drag Valjean’s sorry derriere back, the bishop does something extraordinary, something reflected in the life and teachings of Christ:
He doesn’t merely forgive
Jean Valjean or pardon him,
he eradicates the crime!
Instead of agreeing with the law that Valjean is a thief, the bishop tells the gendarmes that not only is everything that Valjean has taken from the church a gift for him, but that the bishop is glad they returned him because Valjean forgot the most valuable items of all, two silver candlesticks.
To lift a line from Apocalypse Now, this puts the zap on poor Valjean’s head. He comes to realize, as Paul points out in his writings, that the law does not exist to make us good but to convict us of our wrong doings.
To be good requires a change within Valjean himself, but it is key and crucial to that change that he abandon any idea that the law has moral authority over him. The law is not just because the law can only react to human problems. Jean Valjean must become a moral agent by living justly in a proactive way, not seeking retribution for those who do wrong but redeeming those who are in distress.
As Bob Dylan once observed,
to live outside the law
you must be honest.
Abandoning the law does not make Jean Valjean an immoral libertine; quite the contrary. Valjean uses his new found wealth in a conventionally bourgeois manner, setting himself up in business, using his financial success and social position to do good.
But we do not travel through life as if it were a vacuum,
rather we leave wakes that unintentionally
affect all those around us.
Valjean, attempting to be just, unintentionally destroys the life of Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Belatedly realizing what he has done, he sets out to take care of her now orphaned daughter, who had been left in the care of the mendacious Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).
But fate has brought him back to the attention of Javert. Javert is not obsessed with Valjean; he has much larger fish to fry in the course of the story, but Javert is so rigid and machine-like in his duty to the law that he can’t let go of the fact Valjean is a parole-breaker.
Valjean is a tiny grain of sand in his gears,
but a persistent and annoying one.
As stated, Valjean no longer feels bound by the moral authority of the law, but it is crucial to the Christian context of the story that he nonetheless remains willing to submit to the law if the law will allow him first the opportunity to do what is right by Fantine’s child.
Javert, of course, can not permit this, and the chase is on.
Let’s examine that thought for a moment, the submission to unjust authority.
Les Miserables does not make a lick of sense if one removes it from its cultural context, and that cultural context involves in great part the teachings of Christ.
Without the teachings of Christ, the bishop who eradicates Valjean’s crime is a fool:
He should have turned him over to the gendarmes to make sure he didn’t victimize others.
Valjean himself if a fool:
He has ample opportunity to cut himself clear if he just doesn’t get involved with others. By contrast the Thénardiers display the cunning sense of self-preservation that Valjean lacks. He is a fool again for adhering to mercy and forgiveness instead of joining the young revolutionaries later in the story.
Remove the Christian context, and only Javert remains a moral force in the story, relentlessly suppressing crime and rebellion whenever and wherever it appears.
In a very real sense,
Ayn Rand wrote her
version of Les Miserables
and called it Atlas Shrugged.
The moral brilliance of Christ is that he made no attempt at systemic change.
Christ realized the world would change only when the human heart changed, and that unless and until an individual sought and desired that change, there was no way to impose it from without.
The change wrought in Valjean is at the core of his being. It transforms him from a creature of rage and retribution into an unselfconscious saint and savior.
This contrasts sharply with the young radicals at the end of the story. Driven by genuine passion and concern for the poor, they attempt to stage a revolution to bring justlce to them.
Instead they end up crushed and dead at
the hands of Javert and the government.
Conversely Valjean, by showing compassion and forgiveness even though sympathetic to their cause, not only survives the final onslaught but rings a more devastating change in Javert than if he had actually shot and killed him.
Valjean’s main motivation for the second half of Les Miserables is the care and protection of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (first Isabelle Allen, then Amanda Seyfried).
Just as Valjean can not escape from Javert’s attention, neither can Cosette escape from the Thénardiers, who constantly seek to either reclaim her or exploit knowledge of her for personal gain. (it is, of course, one of the great ironies of the story that such an overtly duplicitous set of villains should careen through the tale virtually unscathed and ignored by the authorities while Valjean, attempting to co-exist peacefully and discretely, is constantly hounded by both the law and the lawless).
A word on Cosette:
It strikes me that the reason some people are in this world is to provide redemption and salvation to others, not by rescuing them, but by allowing others to show compassion and love.
Cosette not only saves Valjean, she saves the student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) as well, first by turning the passion in his heart from anger to love, then by inspiring Valjean to risk his own life to drag the young lad to safety through the sewers of Paris.
And like the bishop,
she eradicates his crimes,
In the end, Javert can not exist in the same world as Valjean.
Valjean’s ability to walk away from the law — literally and morally — can not go unchallenged in Javert’s eyes. To say that a man may live morally and justly without swearing allegiance to the same rigid code he adheres to makes that code invalid to Javert, and thus by extension renders Javert himself invalid.
The tiny grain of sand succeeds where larger, stronger forces failed:
It destroys the machinery of Javert’s existence.
Valjean is redeemed by his crime being eradicated.
Javert is doomed by his law being eradicated.
It has often been said that without law there can be no crime,
but I can’t help but feel we’ve got that proposition backwards.
Without crime, there can be no law.
Crime is the absence of love.
With love, there is
no need for law.