Les Miserables (review)

Before I get to any sort of intelligent analysis of this film I have to attempt to retroactively bite my tongue. To be fair, I never said that musicals are bad in general, just that I only personally enjoyed a select few. But in any case Les Miserables is, in fact, a musical, and I did, in fact, enjoy it. Immensely.

(For those of you who don't already know my opinion of adaptation I will not be discussing the film's fidelity to either the original musical or the novel. The film stands on its own as it should.)

With that out of the way, there are some things that you probably already know but which I believe ought to be mentioned in any self-respecting review of the film.

Russell Crowe as Javert. I get the feeling that I didn't dislike his performance as much as most, but he was definitely one of the weaker central characters. His singing, especially outside of his solos, was not the best, and I could tell you that not even being an expert on music.

But what's worse for me was something that resulted from either his performance or Tom Hooper's direction. To risk a movement towards a critique of the film's adaptation, I thought Javert was a much more powerful character in the book as a sort of ugly, skeletal creature. While the movie obviously doesn't have to take this figuration as gospel, I thought Crowe was a bit too much of a pretty boy. Instead of coming off as a sort of denizen of the night who believes absolutely in the power and necessity of the law, he seemed more like he had been brought up with the law and basically assumed it was the only way to do things. This made his eventual moral dilemma (I'll try not to ruin too much) less moving than it could/should have been.

For my money this is quite a trivial problem compared to the general greatness of the film.

Important to any consideration of the movie is the the way the singing was recorded. For those of you who don't already know, the singing was recorded "live", i.e. while the singers acted instead of later in a studio. I think this, combined with the through-composed nature of the film, were the reasons I didn't have the problems I normally have with musicals. For one, the emotion seemed much more genuine because the actors where putting their hearts into the singing, and for another, there's no rupture in the film's diegesis because the sound is always coming from the same source (and since everyone is pretty much always singing there's no "alright, now here's a musical number!" jumpiness to the narrative progression).

Also excellent, and seemingly a necessity for live recorded singing, was the camera work. Not only is the camera often claustrophobically close to the actors, but it's also not afraid to move around and follow them instead of relying too heavily on multiple cameras and frequent cuts. All this lent the film a unique feel as well as giving the audience a sense of proximity to the characters. Most notably in this regard is Jean Valjean's "What Have I Done?" We are so close (literally) to Valjean while he questions his identity that we become closer (figuratively) to him for the rest of the film.

One final thing before I jump into theory: Tom Hooper, or whoever was behind the camera, seemed to like crooked angle shots a bit too much for my taste. Started distracting me towards the end. Learn to hide the cinematic apparatus better! Ideology, people! Come on.

Right. So I'd like to look at the way Les Miserables deals with the theme of forgiveness. This is perhaps a seemingly predictable avenue to take, but before you leave in disappointment let me try to justify myself. I'm not going to talk about forgiveness in the Christian sense, and in fact I don't plan on talking about Christianity at all. I'm going to look at forgiveness as Zizek does in Violence* (and elsewhere).

The only way truly to forgive and forget is to enact a revenge (or a just punishment): after the criminal is properly punished, I can move forward and leave the whole affair behind. There is something liberating in being properly punished for one's crime: I paid my debt to society and I am free again, no past burdens attached. The "merciful" logic of "forgive, but not forget" is, on the contrary, much more oppressive. I (the criminal who is forgiven) remain forever haunted by the crime I committed, since the crime was not "undone (ungeschehengemacht)," retroactively cancelled, erased, in what Hegel sees as the meaning of punishment. (Violence, 190)

Valjean's "What Have I Done?" and Javert's final soliloquy (the title of which contains a major spoiler, so don't look it up if you care about that sort of thing) both attest to the "oppressive" character of forgiveness without "proper punishment". What's interesting for me is the different reactions the two characters have to this trauma.

Valjean's reaction is perhaps my favorite part of the whole story of Les Miserables. In response to Bishop Myriel's forgiveness, Valjean completely gives up his attachments to his symbolic identity.

I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

Admittedly he does receive some help destroying himself from being in prison for so long, but he continues his selfless ethic when he reveals himself as Jean Valjean to save another man from being imprisoned in his place. This is a profoundly Lacanian ethic: one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to traverse one's fantasy, the fundamental fantasy that structures one's subjectivity. In this case Valjean gives up the fantasy of what constitutes "Jean Valjean" and then after what constitutes "Monsieur Madeleine" ("Monsieur le Mayor").

Javert's response to the trauma of forgiveness is problematic precisely because he cannot do what Valjean does. He can't accept the possibility of a law tainted by the mercy of a criminal. Or, to translate in Lacanese, he cannot accept the inconsistency in the Big Other, something his fantasy (of a pure law free from either mythic violence or petty thievery) had screened from him until Valjean's act of forgiveness. 

But there is some value in fantasy I believe, and the end of Les Miserables attests to this. "Do You Hear The People Sing?", and especially the final two words of the film (I don't think this'll ruin much) "tomorrow comes", exemplify an attitude of fantasizing for the future. Now normally I find displacing one's happiness to an indefinite point in the future to be a rather silly idea. In the case of moving towards communism, however, I can make an exception! But seriously, In order for political change to take place there has to be some sort of fantasizing for a different future.

I think in the final analysis this (in a perhaps indirect way) is the political lesson of Les Miserables: first, give up the fantasy structuring your subjectivity; and second, adopt a new (selfless, political) fantasy. Simple perhaps, but certainly not easy. 

*Žižek, Slavoj, Violence, Picador, New York, 2008