Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Mis

We caught a matinee of  Les Misérables (the musical version) today. I had a feeling I wouldn’t like it, but it seemed like a good opportunity to familiarize myself with a slice of popular culture. Besides, the wind chill outside was -7.

I’m a big opera fan, so I have no trouble watching people sing. Having seen fifty or a hundred operas, I can say with some degree of authority that the folks in Les Misérables don’t sing very well. It’s a different style, you say. That’s for sure.

Nor do absurd and convoluted plots trouble me much. (Have you ever seen Rigoletto, or better yet, Simon Boccanegra?) In fact, there are several very good film versions of Les Misérables out there already. The Liam Neeson version (1998) which also stars Geoffrey Rush, Clare Danes, and Uma Thurman, is underrated. And the Claude Lelouch version (1995), with WWII “flashbacks” and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the starring role, is also quite good. In the 1935 version, Charles Laughton set a standard of sorts in the role of Inspector Javert, and the black-and-white format of that film lent added good-and-evil punch to the production. Due to that film, the gleaming candlesticks that Jean Valjean “forgot” have been etched into my visual databank forever. (Or was it only that I saw the film on a black-and-white TV?)

Without further hemming and hawing, let me report to anyone who’s on the fence regarding this film that it passed the time well enough. I enjoyed it. I even teared up on several occasions. And it’s always nice to revisit Paris from time to time, even if it’s from the seat of a darkened theater.

There were a few aspects of the film that I didn’t like. I find mad-cap, stylized depictions of abuse, thievery, brutality, and  prostitution unpleasant to watch—the zany energy in the costumes and behavior runs counter to the misery being depicted, and also to the film’s message of love and forgiveness. As a result, I hated every scene in which Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen appears. I also had trouble getting excited about the music itself, which struck me as light-weight, sing-songy pop (if not downright schlock), for the most part.

On the other hand, the entire cast did a marvelous job of breathing sincerity and emotion into even the most ho-hum tunes. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe engage in a solid cat-and-mouse game throughout the film, and they both acquit themselves well enough in the singing department. Crowe’s performance has been described as “strained,” but I didn’t think so. I took it to be a reflection of the moral perturbations he was feeling in spite of himself. If we’d learned a little more about his early life (at the expense of all the pickpocket foolishness, perhaps) it would have added even further to the drama.

Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway could not have done a better job of rendering the heartbreak of Fantine.

Yet as I watched the film, I caught myself time and again thinking about other films. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) was really quite good. And what about Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers (1973)? Jessica Lange’s fine performance in Cousin Bette even flashed through my mind a few times, don’t ask me why.
I also found myself wondering whether it would be a good idea to make a spicy Provencal stew out of the stub of a pork roast that was thawing in the refrigerator, or to coat the pork chunks with cayenne, cumin, and paprika and broil them in the oven to make pincho moruno.

When the lights came up on Les Mis, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. This was largely because the nobility and self-sacrifice of Jean Valjean is a moving sight to see.

We stopped at Lunds on the way home to pick up some leeks for the stew. We put Gounod’s Faust on the stereo while we were cooking, and we felt we were seeing Les Misérables all over again…but this time the music was in French, and it was much better.  

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