I finally saw Les Miserables. “Take tissues!” was the universal advice of friends. I shoved a Christmas hanky in my purse.
I hadn’t really heard the music, seen the play, or read the book – well, that’s not completely true. I read the book in 10th grade French class. Did I understand what I was reading? Absolutely not. In fact, I had it mixed up with Tale of Two Cities and thought there was a sad, suicidal ending and didn’t rush to the movie line on Christmas Day. Turned out there was a not-so-sad suicidal ending that most people did not expect. Either way, I was a Les Miz virgin.
At risk of being labeled cold, unfeeling and probably — gasp — humanistic, I was dry-eyed throughout. It just didn’t move me. The redemption was cheap, the forgiveness empty, the misery spread evenly to all classes, all genders, all characters. At least it was aptly named. All of the characters were miserable and I was, too.
Opening a film with starved, beaten prisoners wear chains and irons around their necks creates a certain emotional distance in me right off the bat. The same thing happened when I saw the cover of the book The Astonishing LIfe of Octavian Nothing showing a whole-head iron mask locked on a black man’s head. It was beyond my ability to engage and made the story so secondary to the imagery that none of it worked.
The horrors of man’s inhumanity to man and the personification of corrupted power in a uniform-strutting bureaucrat who in reality defies the law by not accepting the conclusion of lawful punishment doesn’t work for me. Surrounding it by lush French luxury or even by slimy revolutionary sweat and dirt doesn’t distract me from the fact that the same atrocities occur here and now all over the globe, including our own American prisons and interrogation rooms.
It was just all so stereotypical. The heart-of-gold tough bitch who takes a bullet for her innocently pure revolutionary man. For that matter, the innocently pure revolutionary man himself, capable of love at first sight (and looking like a fresh-faced 12 year-old.) The wise boychild also taking a bullet for freedom. Then there are the literally clownish representations of criminality and the lack of consequences for their acrobatic pickpocketing juxtaposed with 19 years of slavery for stealing bread for a starving child. What was that supposed to be about? I can see it as much-needed comic relief, but the similarities with Mrs. Hannigan in Annie and her brother, “Rooster,” the subtle reference to low-rent White House party-crashers, and the ultimate celebration of amorality in such a strong morality tale was just off.
If there were a few scenes that made slight tugs at my heart, if not my tear ducts, but they were quickly overshadowed by the singing.
The relentless singing.
One passionate, defiant solo after another. In close up. Again and again. Has anyone heard of the power of harmony? The inspiration of a choir? And I’m not even talking about the not one, not two, but three operatic rounds of over-singing. I just would like some variety in tempo and intensity. The sameness was another indication that I wasn’t supposed to know who to root for.
The best music in the film was the simple, quiet, apropos-of-nothing singing of the convent nuns. Viewed from the back. The worst (and there are now websites devoted to this topic) had to be Amanda Seyfried Sleeping Beauty wannabe vibrato soprano. That whole 1940’s female ideal epitomized by a squeaky-pitched song (alarmingly like Minnie Mouse) was so out of place. I like Seyfried. She was the best thing about Mamma Mia, and her subsequent corny movies were fun. But I’ll never be able to watch those blue-pool eyes on a big screen again without hearing that screech about fake true love. The least heroic couple in the movie and that’s supposed to be the great love that makes everything right? The hope for the future? The OK-ness to wrap everything up?
I don’t think so. The misery of the masses is not lifted by the marriage of an aristocratic couple that become the people that they once fought against. The cycle just continues.
Who is righteous? It’s the question that gets hot-potato’d around the movie characters. Is it the self-destructive official who can’t live in a world of grace? The scary prisoner who keeps creating a prison out of his circumstances and can’t live in a world without grace? Are the prostitutes, thieves, catty factory workers, the brutish foreman, the horny sailors, the idealistic rebels, the squeaky sopranos — are they among the righteous? Are you? Am I?
The Bible says, “No, not one.” We are – all of us – Les Miserables. None of us deserving of grace, all of us saved by grace; not by heroics or being on the right or wrong side of a cause or the up or down side of a society.The failure of this film to deal with the root cause of human evil didn’t make me cry.
It just made me sad.