Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On the Big Screen: LES MISERABLES (2012); or, Heaven is a Barricade

2013 started for me with one of those oldschool moviegoing experiences I claim to miss. I hiked over to the local arthouse to see Tom Hooper's musical and found a line extending outside the lobby door. I took my place about halfway down the block, and by the time I reached the door the line may have reached the corner. I haven't stood in a line like that in nearly forty years, since my mom took me to matinees at one of the old downtown theaters. Why the line? The three most popular movies in the country had late matinees starting within ten minutes of one another. I was dressed for winter and didn't mind the wait once I realized that my show wasn't sold out. It was nearly that by the time the trailers started. Then came the latest attempt to keep the musical genre alive: Hooper's picturization of the Englishing of the French musical version of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. Les Miserables has been hyped as an innovation: the actors sang their songs live on the set, in front of the camera, rather than lip-synching to their own pre-recordings. That aside, it may appear innovative to most audiences unaccustomed to movies in which nearly all the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. Something like that was tried back in 1933 but Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! didn't catch on. This approach begs a question: does every line really need to be sung? Some are quite prosaic and the effect slightly undercuts the project's lyric ambitions. After a while you get used to it as just another mode of storytelling.

There are plenty of actual songs in the show, but when the characters are singing all the time they and the director have to work harder to make the big moments big. Like many modern directors of musicals, Hooper sometimes works too hard. With one major exception, he can't resist cutting from one camera angle to another during the big numbers. This often seems like the only way film directors can assert themselves while making musicals; the cuts themselves often seem like unwelcome reminders from the director: "I'm here!" A cut-heavy approach might seem to make sense for numbers where the lyrics are shared by several characters -- at times Hooper seems most influenced by Robert Wise's staging of "Tonight" from West Side Story -- but when the editing looks like it's done for its own sake the song is in danger of becoming a soundtrack to the montage rather than the true focus of attention. Movie musicals took on their classic form when virtuoso performers like Fred Astaire insisted that their work be shown without directorial punctuation. Once Hollywood ceased to have musical-genre specialists among its directors, this deference to the performer was largely forgotten. Hooper apparently meant sincerely to put more emphasis on performance; if anything, he's been criticized for using too many close-ups, as if he were wasting screen space somehow. I found neither the close-ups nor Hooper's frequent use of handheld cameras as annoying as his compulsion to cut or an overall reluctance to really choreograph the action. Perhaps accidentally, his approach spotlights the big moment when he doesn't cut in mid-song: Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." This scene vindicates Hooper's close-up strategy as Hathaway's tear-streaked, crop-cut, gasping visage commands the screen while she sings the show's famous anthem of despair. Her character doesn't stick around long, but Hathaway makes a more potent impression in her brief turn than Hugh Jackman, a proven talent in musical comedy, makes in the star role. Jackman's numbers are often subverted by Hooper's constant cutting. He also suffers because the show itself, on this evidence, doesn't do enough to differentiate Jean Valjean's musical voice from that of his antagonist, Inspector Javert. Readers of the novel might find the idea of a musical Javert hard to swallow, and casting Russell Crowe in the role furthers the impression that none of the creative talents really found a way to present the archetypal persecutor lyrically. Crowe looks as if instructed to walk and sing stiffly; if so, he takes direction well. I expected something darker, more menacing. The most I can say for Crowe is that he might do a decent Javert in prose.

It's hard for me to appraise Les Miserables on its own. Hathaway's presence and some of the details of the actual story are reminders of The Dark Knight Rises, in which Hathaway's character also has a fateful encounter with a powerful man who has a secret identity. In the musical she's Fantine, a factory worker in the employ of Jackman's Valjean, an ex-convict who has become a benign employer and mayor of his town under an assumed name after violating his parole. Valjean, as nearly everyone once knew, did hard time for stealing a loaf of bread and somehow became a personal project for Javert, a man who believed that once a criminal, always one. Fantine's foreman is hitting on her and fires her for not putting out, claiming some morals clause because Fantine had not admitted having a child. Valjean is too preoccupied by the sudden appearance of Javert in town to pay attention to Fantine's distress. She ends up on the fast track to oblivion, selling hair and teeth to provide for her little girl, Cosette, before finally turning to prostitution -- her big song is a post-coital lament in the film. When Valjean does step in to prevent Javert from arresting her, she spits on him, blaming him for her predicament. She might as well have warned him that a storm was coming -- since it will. But she has the consumption of something and the most Valjean can do for her is make sure she can expire comfortably in a hospital and promise that he'll take care of Cosette as if she were his own daughter. As Hathaway asserted in a recent debate with Samuel L. Jackson, her movie literally means "the miserable," and Fantine is the most miserable of all. You could imagine Selina Kyle as Fantine vengefully reborn. I can also imagine The Dark Knight Rises improving if Christopher Nolan had been influenced by Hugo more than by Dickens. What that film needed was more "miserable," or enough to make more plausible anyone's rallying to Bane's pretend revolution. What it might have needed was a real revolution like the one the students in Les Miserables try to start in the final act. There, Fantine's spiritual heir isn't so much her own daughter (Amanda Seyfried is a simpering Cosette) as it is Eponine (Samantha Banks), the daughter of Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter's comic-relief rascally inkeepers, raised for a while alongside Cosette and eventually her rival for the hunky revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Eponine realizes that Marius has eyes only for Cosette after seeing her once, and turns her own love into martyrdom, donning men's clothes to join Marius on the barricade and take a bullet for him. She even gets a song with the same tune as "I Dreamed a Dream" to reinforce the linkage with Fantine. You don't have to see Selina Kyle in the meta-future to see Fantine's legacy as revolution. The musical itself tells us that at the end.

Like many a modern picture, Les Miserables takes its time ending, but it may seem that way only because I, as a Les Miz layman, see Javert as such a central figure. Once Crowe takes his leave of the picture -- in drawn-out, overproduced fashion --  I began anticipating the wrap-up, but there was a lot of wrapping yet to come. Redmayne gets to sing a tragedy-of-war type song before the end is truly in sight -- and the ending is a wonderful thing. Hooper fully embraces all the melodrama and pathos of 19th century literature as Valjean, still fearing exposure and its consequences for Cosette, decides to abandon her to Marius's care. It's refreshing in an era where most entertainment insists inanely on the evil of keeping secrets to see two heroes agree on a noble lie, however patronizing it may be to Cosette. The point isn't the nobility of the lie, however, but the pathos of renunciation that used to be a common thing in movies. Valjean's renunciation is short-lived, however, as Eponine's parents try to blackmail Marius by threatening to rat out Valjean. They can't do that unless they know where he is, and that knowledge leads to one more reunion of father and adopted daughter before the old man takes more permanent leave. Now we get something like an apotheosis, as Fantine appears to Valjean as a friendly angel of death -- or his spiritual wife -- to escort his soul from his body. She takes him to a vast Paris public square transformed into the gigantic revolutionary barricade that Marius and his dead friends had hoped to see rise. Those dead friends are all on the barricade, and Valjean and Fantine join them there for the final chorus. I had thought that the actual barricade Marius and friends had erected in their neighborhood had fallen short of my epic expectations of the film. Now I understood that theirs was the sad reality while Valjean's final vision is theirs, Hugo's -- Hooper's? -- revolutionary ideal. Hugo was a controversial and courageous writer in his own time, but a filmmaker in 2012 for all intents and purposes identifying heaven with revolution? Hooper probably won't get enough credit for that. To say the least, when the film finally ended, it ended strongly.

Apart from his issues directing musical numbers, Hooper sometimes reveals an unhappy fondness for godlike swooping across CGI cityscapes, as if making the Les Miz video game. When he stands still, his camera takes in impressive scenery. His production designer Eve Stewart, who worked with him on The King's Speech, again proves herself a poet of peeling paint amid picturesquely decrepit or distressed sets. Cinematographer Danny Cohen, also from Speech, provides the other part of the pictorial equation. Considering the subject matter, Les Miserables is a strangely beautiful film when the camera isn't hurtling somewhere. It probably says something for the novel -- which I plan to start reading soon -- that Hooper's faults as a director really matter little. It's Hugo's vision above all that makes the musical an event worth seeing. Seeing the depths of poverty to which people could sink in the past, and what people might do if pushed too hard or too far, probably can't hurt today.


Sam Juliano said...

"This approach begs a question: does every line really need to be sung? Some are quite prosaic and the effect slightly undercuts the project's lyric ambitions."

Samuel, the answer to this is 'yes.' LES MISERABLES is really an opera.

You certainly take a fine tooth comb to this review and film, but a very acute assessment. I don't havbe the issues with Hooper's direction that you do, (especially the major issues with the editing)in large measure thought the singing live was successful. The beautiful score and the timeless story at at the core of this film adaptation are what count most, and in that sense the film directs itself. Hathaway, Jackman, Redmayne and Barks are all impressive, and Crowe, the weak link, does have a commanding (though nowhere near as demonic as he should be) presence and a few nice moments. A number of great arias, and the ending in the convent really brings the tears.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, my first lesson in movie-musical criticism came from Siskel & Ebert, who chided John Huston for pointless cutting in Annie. It's one thing to cut if you're relocating the singer from one place to another in mid-song, but in one number Hooper cuts back and forth from close-ups to mid-length shots of Jackman as he sings. I see no good reason for this and it undercuts the impression Hooper wants to create of the performer singing live on the spot.

You're correct, however, about the story mattering more than the way the songs are directed and I'd definitely recommend this film for the story, which has me taking up the novel and ought to inspire more people to do the same.