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Jean Valjean, convicted of a minor crime, spends the rest of his life being pursued by a cruel and unrelenting policeman, Javert.
For more about Les Misérables and the Les Misérables Blu-ray release, see Les Misérables Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 10, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Jean Gabin, Bernard Blier, René Fleur
Director: Jean-Paul Le Chanois
» See full cast & crew
Les Misérables Blu-ray Review
No, not that one.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 10, 2013
Is your Oscar office pool all set? This is a rather odd year for the Academy Awards, at least when utilizing other awards shows to gauge how the Oscars will play out. Several high profile directors were snubbed by the Academy despite the fact that their films received multiple nominations, and one of them (Ben Affleck) has seen his film (Argo) do quite well at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild Awards shows. Some of the categories are sure locks (it would take a miracle for Daniel Day-Lewis to lose in the Best Actor category for his stunning work in Lincoln), though other categories, notably Best Actress and perhaps even Best Supporting Actor, are quite a bit more competitive. There seems to be little doubt, however, that Anne Hathaway is poised to capture the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her performance as Fantine in Les Misérables. Aside from the sheer technical aspects of Hathaway's work, there's also a personal story at stake here, the very kind that Academy voters simply love. Hathaway's mother Kate McCauley played Fantine in the first national tour of Les Misérables and the very young Anne was in the audience for some performances, a situation which made an indelible imprint on her and made her determined to capture this role in the film version. Hathaway is nevertheless one of the few elements in the newest film version of Les Misérables to receive near unanimous praise. The film has been pilloried for being too bloated, too grandiose and too lengthy for its own good. One has to wonder what these same critics would have said about the 1958 version of Les Misérables, a nearly three and a half hour epic that some audience members may have jokingly thought was forcing them to relive Jean Valjean's long incarceration themselves. (This particular version runs just over three hours, as evidently several European DVD versions do, but I've been unable to find a reliable source as to what if anything was cut from the film.)
I arrived at Victor Hugo by a somewhat circuitous route. I had become enamored of Ayn Rand when I was a teenager, marauding through all of her books when I was probably around sixteen to seventeen or so (in fact, I've often thrown up my hands in dismay over adults who espouse her "philosophy" as if it were delivered from Mt. Sinai—it was obvious to me by the time I was probably nineteen that Rand had her points, but that Objectivism was hardly the answer to all of the world's problems). Rand was a huge proponent of Hugo's writing, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to find out what "the deal" was, so I settled down to a rather long and frankly tortuous reading experience, finally managing to drag myself through Les Misérables simply by pure force of will. This may strike some as absolute heresy, but as riveting as Jean Valjean's story was, I actually found Hugo's actual writing style, at least insofar as it was delivered in the English translation I read, simply not riveting enough for my then quite young sensibility (I really should revisit the novel now to see what my reactions might be, as my hunch is they'd be radically improved).
Anyone who has had the fortitude to actually read Victor Hugo's immense novel will know the sheer audacity that any adaptation of the source must have in order to even come close to capturing the sheer scope of the story, let alone the glut of characters. Some editions of Les Misérables weigh in at well over 1,000 pages, and trying to cram that much information into a reasonable film running time is well nigh impossible. Part of the story of Les Misérables is of course the huge span of time that Jean Valjean spends in prison, not to mention the years that pass after his eventual freedom, and time, not to make too fine a point of it, requires time itself to make the reality of the situation feel real. There's a fine tightrope to be walked between making that time viscerally real while not weighing the audience down to the point of torpor.
At a bit over three hours, this Les Misérables has the luxury of exploring the long unfolding relationship between Jean Valjean (Jean Gabin) and Javert (Bernard Blier), but it also takes certain liberties with Hugo's source novel due to the rather large age differences between Gabin and Blier. In this version of Hugo's venerable story, Javert first "meets" Valjean when Javert is still a child, seeing the prisoner break out of his shackles to help save another prisoner, only later as an adult developing his near obsession with the supposed criminal. This version also dwells a bit more on Valjean's (somewhat iffy) redemption at the hands of the Bishop (Fernand Ledoux) than either the novel or many of the other film adaptations.
These are fairly inconsequential diversions from what is overall a very faithful (some might argue almost reverential) treatment of Hugo's novel. That said, there are some things to be aware of. The "new" (musical) Les Misérables has been faulted (unfairly in my estimation) for being too "grimy" for a blockbuster musical, but the exact opposite criticism might be lobbed at this version, for it is, in its own widescreen, Technicolor splendor way, very much in line with historical epics from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when even supposed "lowlifes" were squeaky clean and the streets of Paris were absolutely immaculate.
What ultimately saves this version from its own good intentions is the acting gravitas of Gabin as Valjean, as well as several stellar supporting performances. Gabin brings an incredibly stolid, understated precision to his portrayal of the long suffering hero, managing to sum up a lifetime of indignities in one doleful gaze. If Blier isn't quite his equal as Javert, he does a reasonably well rounded job in displaying both Javert's nastiness as well as his own internal sense of failure which in fact colors his relationship with his perceived prey. Several of the more minor characters are simply wonderful, including a wonderful Bourvil as one of the best ever screen Thernardiers and a rather touching Daničle Delorme as Fantine. Béatrice Altariba as the adult Cosette also has some heart tugging scenes, especially toward the end of the film.
Director Jean-Paul Le Chanois (rather bizarrely listed as Jean-Louis Le Chabois on the back cover's text even though the credits below spell his name almost correctly) was an "old school" French writer and director who became one of the main whipping posts of the New Wave of French filmmakers who were becoming all the rage almost exactly when this Les Misérables was debuting. It's not hard to understand the antipathy: there's very little innovation or even movement in La Chanois' stagings. He plants his Technirama camera down and lets the action unfold in the action scenes, and letting medium two shots suffice for the bulk of the dialogue scenes. This deprives the film of some visual momentum, though it must also be stated that this Les Misérables is often quite scenic.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Video Quality
Les Misérables is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.34:1. The elements here are in quite good condition from a damage standpoint, but there are both some slight fading issues as well as passing registration differences that will be noticed by eagle eyed viewers. Perhaps a bit strangely, interior scenes tend to look a bit more robust than some of the (many) exterior scenes. Fine detail is quite admirable in close-ups and midrange shots, and as with all Olive releases, there has been no overaggressive digital sharpening or noise reduction applied to Les Misérables, leaving the natural film grain intact.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Les Misérables features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track in the original French. While it's obvious that this film was shot with its international cast speaking their native languages and then having been post-looped, synchronization issues are really fairly minimal, all things considered. The biggest issue here is some persistent distortion in the midrange, something that is especially noticeable in much of the underscore (it's actually distracting in the opening credits sequence). These issues aside, fidelity remains decent. Dynamic range is somewhat subdued, with a couple of action sequences providing bursts of sonic energy.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
There are no supplements on this disc.
Les Misérables Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Les Misérables is in many ways "The Great French Novel", and it's actually fascinating to compare different film adaptations to see which elements they choose to highlight. This version is anchored by one of the most commanding performers in French cinema, and Jean Gabin's Jean Valjean remains the single most compelling reason to watch this film, though Bourvil's Thernardier is certainly a close second. Le Chanois' direction is a bit too staid and thus the film feels awfully lethargic at times, but the story is so moving that this particular version's shortcomings are easily overlooked. Recommended.
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