Friday, August 10, 2007

Les Misérables

1934, France, directed by Raymond Bernard

One of the few screen versions of Victor Hugo's novel conceived on something close to the scale of the source material, Raymond Bernard's adaptation was originally released as three separate feature films (which appeared on three successive weekends!), with a cumulative running time two-and-a-half times that of Richard Boleslawski's 1935 US version. That film focuses, inevitably, almost entirely on the central narrative thread covering Inspector Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean: the shorter cinema adaptations have tended to reduce the book to that one aspect, whereas Bernard's film restores many -- though by no means all -- of Hugo's interwoven themes and plotlines.

The players, too, are almost entirely the reverse of the American version of the following year: in Hollywood, Javert is played by the portly Charles Laughton, whereas Harry Baur, with a remarkably similar physique, plays Jean Valjean here, and it's a much better bit of casting (Laughton, for all his virtues, was never a credibly relentless hunter, lacking any obvious signs of hunger, while the fairly slight Fredric March can't possibly hope to fully evoke Valjean's allegedly immense strength).

As with many a great nineteenth century novel, Hugo's plot depends on an extraordinary variety of coincidences, something made more obvious by the cutting necessary to adapt a book that runs to well over one thousand pages. On film, at least, Valjean isn't so much implacable as remarkably fortunate, with Valjean falling into his lap on a number of occasions. At one point, as if to acknowledge this, Javert notes that "the world is small"; Paris seems reduced to the scale of a village, a few streets where people keep running into one another. Of course, the narrative itself was only one of Hugo's concerns, and his vignettes on the Paris suburbs, or the writing of history, inevitably disappear on film, though Bernard does create richly textured backgrounds that go some way towards providing a substitute for Hugo's descriptive detail.

As in his previous Les Croix de bois, Raymond Bernard blends a variety of techniques to create different moods. The most obvious stylistic device throughout Les Misérables is the use of canted angles -- sometimes canted so much that it appears characters are walking vertically, particularly in the film's stirring courtroom scenes -- that evoke something of the fraught spirit of German film of the late 1920's; the camera tilts notably further from its natural centre when Valjean's fate hangs in the balance, creating a terrific sense of dread, with fate apparently waiting in the wings to drag a decent man back down. At other moments, Bernard makes use of the handheld camera that proved so effective in Les Croix de bois, bringing the viewer to the heart of the street violence of the 1832 uprising in Paris, and injecting a note of grim realism that Hugo would surely have approved of.

Jean Valjean is a gift of a role, given the character's many personalities, and Harry Baur is compelling in all the guises he's called on to adopt: while Valjean's more gentle aspects dominate the running time, at least once he has cast off the baleful influence of prison, Baur's much briefer turn as Champmathieu, at the climax of the first part of the film, is a lovely bit of character acting, a vividly imagined piece of work that underlines Champmathieu's pathetic state, though Bernard is careful to ensure that we never laugh at this broken man.
(The image is snagged from the Criterion Collection site since I returned the DVD without remembering to snap a few stills that would better illustrate Bernard's use of unusual camera angles; Criterion don't suffer from a shortage of praise, but they deserve particular credit for bringing the work of a neglected filmmaker like Bernard to light once again).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States