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Fauxscar Nominee: Les Misérables

January 7, 2013 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, European Writers, Fauxscars, Film, French Authors, History, Literary Movies, Literature, Movies, Political History

Strictly speaking, Les Misérables is not a Literary Adaption; it’s based on the musical, not the Victor Hugo novel. The story has traveled far since it was first published in France. It’s always been a big, hulking phenomenon, and it’s always had its critics. What demolishes the criticism, however, is its emotional forcefulness. And the funny thing about the criticism of each successive adaption, is that it tends to focus on the new version’s faithfulness to the original, despite the fact that the novel was criticized at the time for being sentimental – unfaithful to reality itself. Flaubert deemed it “infantile” and Baudelaire privately called it “tasteless and inept.” But in the preface, Hugo outlined a social purpose for his book that was greater than literary accomplishment:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

In 1862 when Les Misérables was published, the American civil war was being fought over the emancipation of slaves. The noble hero of the book, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict whose unnatural strength reveals his identity as a former galley slave. He is on the run for most of the film, trying to build a better life as a factory owner, and then stepping up to the role of adopted papa of the orphaned child Cosette. The film of Les Misérables, though based on the musical (it uses all the songs from the 1985 musical bar two) goes where the stage production cannot in portraying the misery of the poor peasants – and in this it rejoins the book. I’ve rarely seen a ‘costume’ production, where the cast is made to look as filthy and downtrodden as this. Most of the characters’ teeth are blackened – though I did notice that Hathaway’s angelic Fantine flashes a cleaner set than some of the lesser cast members. Also Helena Bonham Carter is allowed to get away with her usual steampunk, hallucinatory version of historical costume. This role finds her once again as a flouncy, amoral proprietress of a low dive establishment, even making sausages out of suspect bits of meat, just as she did in Sweeny Todd.

Aside from the comic filthiness of Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, there’s no getting around the sentimentality of the movie and its antecendents, the musical, the book, and numerous film adaptions. But because it’s a musical, a version of willing suspension of disbelief sets in. Call it, “willing suspension of cynical running commentary” (we’ll wait ‘til the movie’s out on Netflix to relax our standards on that). But it’s more than that. The movie packs real emotional weight, especially through the performances of the leads. No one could fail to be moved by Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While they’re delivering their soliloquys, the shots are trained on the characters’ faces – often from above, as if to capture the desperation and abandonment which makes them invoke a higher power. By the time Hathaway’s Fantine bows out of the film, she is a broken woman, shorn of her locks and her dignity; the camera does not flinch from describing the dirt and tears on her face.

Hugh Jackman is also a great, sympathetic lead as Jean Valjean, and Samantha Barks is a sad, forlorn Eponine.  Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are fairly wooden, but as the fairy prince and princess characters, they don’t have much to do besides adorn the happy ending.

Overall ‘Les Miz’ works because of its great cast rather than originality – but really, who was looking for that? It manages to stay true to the form of the musical – and to the intentions of the book: to portray the victims of poverty. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of those soliloquys bag a few Oscars for the leads.

“Before” and After: An Unconventional Love Story for the Modern Age

November 29, 2012 in Film

This post contains spoilers for the films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. 

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I am not usually a fan of sequels.  For me, they feel like forced afterthoughts or a way to cash in on a previous success.  Very much like literary adaptations, they are often watered-down renditions that fail to do justice to the original work. But there are always exceptions to every rule, and it so happens that one of my favorite films, Before Sunset (2004), is a sequel to Before Sunrise (1995), another one of my favorite films. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I was absolutely ecstatic when I heard the recent news that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy just finished covertly filming a third installment, Before Midnight, this past summer.  The first two films came out nine years apart, and if Before Midnight is released in 2013 as planned, another nine years will have passed.  If only for the sake of cinema, let’s hope the Mayans are wrong.

The series, directed by Richard Linklater, begins in Before Sunrise with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American twentysomething backpacking his way through Europe, meeting Celine (Julie Delpy), a French grad student, on a train bound for Paris.  The two feel an instant connection and he convinces her to get off the train with him in Austria, where they spend the entire night together wandering through Vienna.  It sounds cliché, and as a woman, relatively dangerous.  The chance of me disembarking a train with a stranger in a foreign country is highly unlikely, even if he does look like Ethan Hawke.  I’ve seen Taken and my dad, though amazing, is no Liam Neeson. So, sad to say, if I am fated to meet my soul mate this way, I will have to come to terms with the missed connection and a future full of cats.  Luckily for Jesse (and viewers), Celine does not share these fears.

Linklater takes a plot that at first glance seems like a formulaic rom-com and turns it completely on its head.  For one, although the attraction is there from the beginning, the characters are smart and level-headed.  She might get off the train with him, but Celine is far from a starry-eyed ingénue.  It is in fact a film of dualities, with an attitude about love that is romantic and cynical at the same time.  The film unfolds over the course of one night and besides a lot of talking not much appears to happen.  Yet by the end of the film even the most cynical spectator becomes swept up in a dreamy Gatsby-esque notion of love.  However it isn’t all flowers, rainbows and green lights on the ends of docks, because these characters are not hopeless romantics drinking poison and falling on daggers at the thought of being apart.

They are a far cry from Romeo and Juliet and I only hope that the Twilight generation stumbles across these films at some point. Unlike Edward and Bella, Jesse and Celine know from the start that they are on different paths and when the morning comes they will go their separate ways and live their separate lives.  Celine is not going to quit school and move to America as easily as Bella agrees to give up being a human. They are not dramatic about it, and therein lies the beauty.  As they say goodbye without exchanging last names or telephone numbers in a pre-Facebook world, there is this sense of sadness in the knowledge that they are making a mistake. Yet the film leaves you with hope of their meeting once again in Vienna six months to the day and time.

This only makes the 2004 sequel even more wrenching.  Before Sunset opens with Jesse on a book tour in Paris promoting a novel inspired by Celine.  The question on everyone’s mind: did the two meet again?  Like Vienna in the first film, Paris becomes a third character as the two wander around the city in real time, the eighty minutes Jesse has before his flight back to the US.  Almost a decade has passed and while the first film is ripe with the promise of youth and the ending full of potential, the second film finds the two in their thirties contemplating the regrets that led them to the present moment.

The ending of Before Sunset is beautifully ambiguous, leaving it to the audience to decide the fate of these much loved characters.  The Guardian calls the final scene “one of the most tantalizing and ingenious endings in all cinema.” As Celine dances goofily around her living room impersonating Nina Simone, Jesse watches rapt from the sofa.  She, in character as Simone, purrs “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane.”  He barely registers her words, replying with a simple, “I know.”

Each of the films can stand alone, but viewed sequentially they paint a brilliantly hazy and bittersweet rendition of real life where love, no matter how true, does not necessarily conquer all.  And, as the films posit, maybe that is the point.  In Before Sunrise, Celine tells the story of her grandmother, who “spent her whole life dreaming of another man that she was always in love with…she just accepted her fate.”  In response Jesse muses, “I guarantee you it was better that way…I am sure he would have disappointed her eventually.”

As I anticipate the release of Before Midnight, I am reminded of one of my favorite moments from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  As Brett and Jake are pushed together in a taxi, Brett laments, “we could have had such a damned good time together” to which Jake responds, “isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I imagine it’s the same for Jesse and Celine. Or maybe, in Before Midnight, they will finally get their happy ending.

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For Literary Travelers planning trips abroad, The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations offers detailed information on each of the locations utilized in Before Sunrise (Vienna) and Before Sunset (Paris).

 

 

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