Movie reviewers are still trying to solve the mystery of why audiences respond so emotionally to Les Miserables, now out on the big screen, when it says all the wrong and politically incorrect things. Stacy Wolf in the Washington Post writes wonderingly “viewers are flocking to a movie full of outdated gender roles … and, somehow, we still love them”.
Charles Isherwood of the New York Times arts beat found himself “rooting for a movie I don’t particularly like”. Megan McArdle comes right out and asks it: “Why All the Hate for Les Mis?” After all, she liked it. “I happily sobbed for the last half hour of the movie, while my husband, a movie critic, kept uncomfortably leaning over to ask if I was all right.”
Yes she’s all right.
The probable reason audiences like Les Miserables, the musical, as opposed to the novel which is more complex, is the theme. It is a story about angels and demons. It is not exclusively about social commentary or gender roles or any of that stuff. Angels and demons? That seems improbable at first glance because its characters are nearly all low life. Ex-convicts, working class women, prostitutes, beggars, street gangsters, policemen, clip-joint innkeepers or addle brained revolutionaries make up the cast. Only Marius Pontmercy, Cosette’s betrothed, is reasonably respectable.
They are the opposite of decent company. Nobody in the Washington Post, the New York Times or Google would dream of hiring any of these types to work with them. Yet in the play we find these characters bursting out time after time in song of the purest idealism. They seem concerned — almost obsessed despite their low stature — with things like honor, love, justice, freedom and selfless sacrifice. These scum of the earth are constantly driven by these imperatives as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
McCardle notices it too. She writes that the characters in the musical “are forever … struggling with their conscience, risking all to do the right thing”. Whether that is Fantine selling her hair, teeth and virtue to support her child, or Jean Valjean turning himself in to save an innocent man from penal servitude, or Eponine giving up her chance at happiness with Marius to smooth the way for his life with Cosette, or Jean Valjean again returning to the barricades to save the man who will take his daughter from his old age, the protagonists seem bent on performing acts of such unutterable loftiness that it seems impossible not to notice the contrast between that and their low estate. It is entirely as Victor Hugo intended. In the novel itself he wrote:
The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.
Not everyone of course, is engaged in this Pilgrim’s Progress. And in this respect Hugo is politically incorrect. His poor, no less than the middle class and wealthy, can be cruel and unfeeling. Fantine’s co-workers at the factory; the Monsieur who expends his bestial appetites upon her in the brothel-hulk and above all the Thénardiers are concerned with nothing more than petty nastiness, lust or money. Evil, as much as good is an equal opportunity choice in his universe.
But as for the rest they shine brighter than the stars in Javert’s judicial firmament. The police inspector himself occupies the middle ground. Low life like the rest of them (“You know nothing of Javert. I was born inside a jail with scum like you. I am from the gutter too!”) he is not a nihilistic as the Thénardiers. He believes in something, but unlike all the other positive characters of the Les Miserables universe who reach out across the natural cosmos for light, Javert is dependent on the State for salvation. Javert’s route out of the mire has been through the ladder of the state. To Javert the State — whoever might be running it at the moment — is God.
In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light.
And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!
And when at the last Javert is forced to choose between the State and Natural Justice, it does not compute and he resolves the crisis by throwing himself into the Seine.
The contrast between the transcendence which these low-life characters aspire to and their miserable surroundings is enhanced by the movie because it can depict dirt and grime in a way that the stage cannot. My wife, who invited me to the showing, remarked that period France as depicted on film seemed almost as dirty as Tondo, the giant slum in Manila in which I spent some years. “I wonder if people who’ve grown up in the First World will realize how much like that it is.”
I wondered too. Indeed, period France with its sewers, roaches, filth and vomit seemed classier, if anything, than the Tondo of my memory. The brothel hulks on the shore of the Montreuil-sur-Mer were a cut above those the on the Tondo foreshore, where prostitutes plied their trade under tarps, but with more flies and stifling heat. The Thénardier’s seedy tavern is a step up from the Boteng Umiilaw a bar that features in my novel No Way In.
And that contrast was a giveaway because the theme of angel-in-man, and the devil within us, while after all Hugo’s motif, was familiar to me already. The thread running through Les Miserables is an old proverb in the Philippine slums: sa Tondo man ay may langit din, that is to say “even in the dirt you will find angels”.
And there are lots of them in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, the bishop of Digne, Fantine, Eponine, Enjolras and Gavroche. Even the monumental screw-up Enjolras is forgiven, not because his amateurish revolution has a chance. He is forgiven for loving much. When Valjean asks Javert “who do you see in the mirror”, the answer of course is us. The inclusive us, not simply the college-educated us. What we might see in the mirror when we watch Les Miserables is humanity reaching for God. God in some sense at least; but a meaningful God, something greater than Javert’s state.
Perhaps the reason we like the characters in Les Miserables, despite our sophistication, is because they are who we would like to be if we were brave enough to try. The characters hardly inhabit their bodies. It is the spirit they live for. They don’t seem to mind poverty, but are terrified at the prospect of a life without love. Death hardly seems to matter to them; it is honor that they value. Maybe that is why the critics hate Les Miserables on an intellectual level but find themselves reaching for the hankie all the same.
The power of Les Miserables the musical and the movie is that it goes so directly to our deepest aspirations that it sweeps aside our desire for respectability and the need to be cool. That is the probably reason why Christian iconography, even the sacraments, so startling in other Hollywood movies, seem so natural within its context. When Jean Valjean awaits death in the chapel we are not surprised that Fantine comes to forgive him.
forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.
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.
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
No we are not surprised, nor are we disbelieving.