“You are a saint,” Marius tells Jean Valjean as he lies dying in the penultimate scene of the film Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper, 2012). This is a tale about redemption and love, and Jean Valjean comes nearer to the definition of sainthood than most protagonists in literature and film I can think of. Most saints are, I think, not particular interesting. Goodness is not a virtue that makes for entertainment. Jean Vanjean doesn’t aspire to be a saint, but he does struggle to be a good man. After ninteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread, he seizes the chance to reinvent himself, to live a good life and to do good for others. And he looks, as do others in the film, for love. He finds it in the young daughter of a dying prostitute, whom he raises as his own, and whose wounded beloved he rescues from the barricades of the June Rebellion of 1832.
Les Misérables as a musical production, conceived in France, staged in English in London, then imported to the United States, has become its own cliché. People speak with disdain of the music, the lyrics, the excessive passions. The Irish film The Commitments made fun of it, in a short scene. Whether one likes it or not is a matter of personal taste. I have to admit I’ve always been seduced by the music, the story of Valjean, and the emotional excess of the play. The film adaptation is faithful to the musical, reconfiguring many of the scenes on the broader stage of 19th-century Paris, but leaving the story and music intact. It’s long, but then so is the play. The lead actors are all strong and effective, especially Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, and, dare I say, Russell Crowe as Javert. Crowe has been ridiculed for his singing in the film, but he sang well enough and I thought did a fine job as the villain of the piece.
Les Misérables honors the musical’s fusion of romance and redemption with a social message timely for today’s audience. The oppressed and poverty-stricken are beaten down by the wealthy and powerful. For a brief moment they seem to chafe against their bondage, but the June Rebellion is short-lived, and all the young revolutionaries are killed, with the exception of Marius. If social movements fail, as the film suggests they will, it is the quest to live a life well, to love others, that brings one satisfaction. “To love another person is to see the face of God,” Valjean sings at one point.
Most of the women in this musical and film are, in one way or the other, victims, while most of the men are victimizers. Most of the women are important only in their roles as romantic partners, and in their longings for a partner. Only Éponine, after she realizes that Marius does not love her, assumes some agency by joining the rebels at the barricade, where she dies with them. Cosette achieves the happiness her mother never had when she marries Marius. She is protected from the truth about her mother’s victimization, about her own disappointment in love. The romantic subplots in this film, then, are highly conventional. Women are weak romantic objects. The story strays from convention in its portrayal of a world of predatory men preying on women. Predation in a general sense, sexual predation, economic predation, predation on the lower classes by the upper class, is an important underlying theme.