So, I saw Les Misérables (a couple weeks ago, by the time this posts). And, while the film had a lot to recommend it, most of the strengths were due to the material itself and the quality performances. In other areas, however, the director dropped the ball.
In this post, I mentioned Film Crit Hulk’s discussion of the errors in the cinematography of the film. In particular, Hulk mentioned how the director “FILMED THE ENTIRE THING IN CLOSE-UP AND HAND-HELD. DESPITE THE FACT THAT THAT WAS INAPPROPRIATE FOR ABOUT 90% OF THE MOVIE.”
And boy was it true. The director is almost always in extreme close-ups, where you only see the face of the actor, and the rest of the scene is out-of-focus. When he does go to some other shot, it’s almost always for a brief flash barely long enough to register that something else happened.
It’s bad, for all the reasons Film Crit Hulk mentioned. You have all these great actors, delivering powerful, moving performances (and they were), and yet you’ve cut off their heads. There’s no bodies, only disembodied faces. There’s no body language, no movement, no gestures. Why have actors, if you’re not going to allow them to act?
Another thing that bugged me about the Xtreeem! Close! Ups! was that you seldom got a sense of scene, and an actor’s movement within it. Surroundings ground the action. Picture Luke Skywalker, swinging over the chasm, or Indiana Jones, running from the boulder. The scenery places their acting in context. Without a sense of surroundings, the action is taking place in a vacuum. You have no idea what is going on. It’s hallucinatory, like a 2-hour dream sequence, not intimate.
[Obligatory gaming reference: GM’s, describe the characters’ environments, and give them a concrete sense of place. You can use scenery and miniatures, scrawls on a map, or just vivid descriptions. But let them know where they are, so they can envision it in their minds. It will make your game world seem more real.]
There was a deeper problem, however. Tom Hooper just doesn’t understand Les Misérables. This is most obvious in the finale of the film. It’s a grand spectacle of a massive barricade, the apotheosis of the tiny pile of chairs and tables erected earlier in the film. The characters bravely stand atop, waving flags and declaiming how successful the revolution will eventually be.
That isn’t Les Mis.
Les Misérables (the play) is about one man’s redemption from bitterness and hatred. Done wrong, he becomes angry and vengeful. Given a chance to do otherwise, he turns to faith in God and spends his life serving others as best he can.
At the end of his life, he’s earned his redemption by bleeding for others: Serving faithfully and justly as mayor. Raising Cosette. Saving Javert. Saving Marius.
He sacrifices and he suffers to help them. He’s old. He’s bent down by burdens. And Fantine comes to him, and says it’s time to rest from his burdens in Heaven.
The song’s finale isn’t about a political victory over the temporal forces of a government or king. It’s about the promise that, when we die, there is something better.
Fantine says “Come with me / Where chains will never bind you / All your grief / At last, at last behind you. / Lord in Heaven / Look down on him in mercy.”
It’s a very private, personal moment. It’s about the hope of the eternal.
In the movie, Jean Valjean rises in spirit from his body. To match the theme, he should be the youthful, vigorous self before his imprisonment. His burdens are gone, and his appearance should reflect that. Instead, he’s his old, stoop-shouldered, grey, dying self.
Fantine appears to him. She should be her beautiful, long-tressed, joyous self. Instead, she’s the shave-headed, despairing prostitute.
Then all the other fallen appear. And, instead of seeing them free of Earthly burdens and free to experience joy, we see them obsessed with very temporary political concerns.
In this sequence, he got everything wrong. It evinces a deep ignorance of the themes present in the material, a capital failing (even more than the failed cinematography).