Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summer Reading 1: Les Misérables (1934) We'll Start Things Easy with a Five Hour Movie

Welcome back to The Third Row.
With this entry, we mark the first review into Summer Reading.  It's a little bit later into the summer than planned, but we're still going ahead from here.

For the first pick, as promised, and part of the reason for the delay, we started at the deep end of the pool.  The first adaptation chosen for this year was Raymond Bernard's 1934 version of Les Misérables.  This version is considered by many to be the most faithful and definitive adaptation.  There are several reasons for that; The first is the fact that, in terms of adapting this monster of a book, it actually keeps a LOT in.  The trade-off, of course, being the movie clocks in at roughly 4 hours and 40 minutes (Bernard actually divided it into three smaller films: A Tempest in a Skull, The Thénardiers, and Freedom, Sweet Freedom.)  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed by just how much of the book Bernard was able to put into this, And though the third film does see considerably more revising and folding storylines in, it's somewhat understandable by that point in the film.  Even then, it's still quite an impressive feat.

Pictured - The only color image you'll see this entire review.  Enjoy it while it lasts.
...The black & white stuff is quite nice though.

Probably one of the strongest aspects this adaptation has going for it is its casting.  This in particular referring to Harry Baur who plays Valjean in this version (the film actually credits him as Valjean as well as his several other aliases throughout the story.)  When I first saw him in the film, I wasn't quite sure what to make of how to feel about his take on the character.  Any question was quick dispelled within the first half-hour, when I watched this imposing looking actor go from the hardened ex-convict to a shaken and eventually guilt-ridden man.  Baur is up to the task of the emotional range required for the character and is one of the strongest elements of this film.  Even before I got that far in, I was already bracing myself for his take on the finale.  For those who've not read the book, the scenes where Valjean tries to separate himself from Cosette are, honestly, pretty depressing to read.  As such, I was braced for a downright heartbreaking performance from Baur.  The result was, while not devastating, still pretty powerful to watch.  Alongside Baur, the rest of the cast all carry their roles quite well, and it makes it really hard to single out particular strong performances among them all.  The three others I really have to hand the extra acclaim to being Émile Genevois, whose Gavroche has the right level of impertinent energy for the young would-be revolutionary, Henry Krauss, whose bishop of Digne captures the warmth and good humor it took Hugo 50 pages to properly set up, and Max Dearly as M. Gillenormand.  The latter was pretty surprising for me, given most adaptations tend to marginalize a character who was one of the few Hugo wrote as fairly openly comedic.  Dearly runs with the contradictory bourgeois character Hugo created and takes it all the way to the proverbial goal posts, actually inspiring some chuckles in just the mannerisms he gives the character.  While not relating to the acting directly, one other thing I would like to give to the casting, and this was something I wasn't even looking for, but struck me when it happened, was in keeping the familiar connection between Fantine and Cosette.  In fact, the resemblance between the two actresses was close enough I actually had to look to see if they had the same actress playing both roles (the former is played by Florelle while the latter is played by Josseline Gaël, for the record.)

Here we have Florelle's Fantine as the proud winner of 1821's 'It Sucks To Be Me' award

Though, not to be outdone, Cosette is making a good bid to trump her mother thanks to abusive child labor.

I could really keep going on the casting, but I realize you guys are busy and time is precious, etc, etc...point is, this is one count where Bernard's film knocks it out of the park.

In terms of adapting the story - well, like I said above.  I'm amazed at just how much this version retains from the book.  Further, even the stuff it has to boil down, I was impressed to see was handled well.  Scenes such as establishing what prison was like for Valjean, or Fantine's life before she was left an unwed mother are handled in fairly brief flashbacks, but the scenes encapsulate their lives quite well just in the reactions of the people within the sequences.  The film even makes a game effort of handling one of the most daunting parts of the book - the sheer amount of introspection that informs the characters' decisions.  This particularly comes into play during the ends of the first and third movies in the set, first when Baur's Valjean contemplates revealing himself to save a wronged man (also played by Baur) and later when Javert (Charles Vanel, in full professional seriousness without overselling it) tries to reconcile being spared by Valjean, and his own decision to let him go.  Rather than treat it as full monologues, the film allows them a few moments of thinking out loud, instead rationalizing to themselves rather than make a speech.  The second film of the three, admittedly, sees a LOT of narrative trimmed.  Though given what that consists of, I can't entirely say I'll hold it against them - while I admit Marius's backstory is fairly interesting (and some of it does make it into this version), I think an entire movie of his unrequited love for Cosette from afar would get old FAST.  I found myself pleasantly surprised to see this version instead jumped us ahead so they already know each other and have been communicating in secret.  Speaking of modifications to the complicated love life of Marius, of the adaptations I've seen, this is the first so far that's actually acknowledged 'you know something?  While she's sympathetic, Eponine's logic is actually kind of creepy.'  Other versions tend to omit her bigger role in almost getting Marius killed in favor of the nicer image, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this version leave that in. Further, the trimming here is more than made up for in the third film, wherein they capture one of the biggest visual pieces of the story - the failed rebellion of 1832, where Marius and his friends make a fatal final stand at a barricade of their own design.  For a movie that's now almost 80 years old, this sequence has actually aged surprisingly well - the opening outbreak of the rebellion is swift, chaotic, and Bernard puts the audience right in the middle of it.  Further, the barricade matches the challenge of both looking impressive while still maintaining the closed in feeling of the students ready to fight to the death for their beliefs.  About the only real area where the film has shown something of a stumbling here, if you can call it that, is in the limitations of 30s filmmaking as far as gunshots go (they actually handle some of these fairly well with some quick edits, but one major demise winds up looking a bit awkward when the character is hit by several musket shots, but hasn't got a mark on him when he falls backward dead.)  This limitation aside, however, the sequence is easily one of the highlights of the trilogy in terms of filmmaking.

It's only out of respect for not disrupting the space-time continuum that no one's cranking Public Enemy right here.

...I keep telling myself I won't go overboard on these and I keep lying.  But in all fairness, again, it's a long film (actually, I think this is officially the longest film to have a featured review on the site so far, outstreaking Heaven's Gate by about an hour) and it has a LOT to offer for it.

Really, it's hard for me to even find much for weak spots in here.  Even the narrative changes which sometimes felt a bit strange, never genuinely seemed to hurt the film (though it DID seem a bit weird to have M. Thénardier removed from the film that early, but they still managed to cover his absence well enough.)  The streamlining and speeding up of some events is something of a necessary evil, so it's understandable in how it's handled, and the fact that the movie still has as much in it as it does still speaks very well to how it does in translating this work to the screen.  Likewise, they still manage to work in some sequences I honestly didn't expect to see within a film version (most notably ending the second movie with a sequence where Cosette and Valjean watch a team of convicts being carted off to penal colonies.  It's a fairly short section in the book, and the film actually manages to find it a good place in the narrative while also giving it a strong emotional impact to leave the second movie off on.)  Hell, the more I try to think about it, really the only thing I could ALMOST call a negative here would be that the musical score wasn't particularly memorable in an otherwise very strong film.

Well, that and, again, if you haven't got the endurance for a 4+ hour subtitled movie, this could be problematic - though the fact it's broken up into movies that are 1hr50min, 1hr20min, and 1hr26 min does make it considerably less daunting and much easier to process and digest.

"So, you're gonna haunt my conscience and cause me to clean up my act, but it WON'T be through a long lecture? ... OK, I'm in."

All in all, this is a pretty strong starting entry for the project.  It's definitely not a full 1:1 lift of the original novel...but then, if it was, I'd probably still be watching it right now rather than posting this.  Yes, it's THAT much story.  For what it's working with, however, and the amount of time they have, the filmmakers do a surprisingly good job trying to encapsulate as much of the narrative and its themes into the time they have as they can.  Having seen it, I can see why it's considered by many to be the gold standard of filmed versions of the story.

So there's that.  Admittedly, this was a lot more verbose than I'd planned for this one to get...but what can I say?  It gives a lot to work with, and it does it well.
In a bit of a partial jump of the schedule, I'll be doing a writeup on the stage version of the story for next week (partially since it's gonna be a bit different from a standard film review, so I'm tagging it as an extra for this project, albeit one which will inform one of the later entries.)

In the meantime, alongside this, other reviews will resume during the week as well.

Till next time, folks!

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