Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Garden of Tears

            I seldom miss an opportunity to see the sung-through stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." New York? Boston? I'm there. When my son took a semester abroad in London, we saw it there. I've seen it in high schools.
            I seldom miss an opportunity to write about it either.
            I'm aware some people are -- I will not say emotionally stunted -- left us say, rather, deaf to the show's appeal.To those I can only point to the health benefits alone. It's important to take your heart out every once in a while and give it a good cry.
            The film version of "Les Miserables" (directed by Tom Hooper, starring Oscar nominated actors Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway; also Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, among others), is a good opportunity to do just that.
            The film scores some hits and suffers some misses. The quality that makes it worth seeing it on film is the same thing that carries the stage production -- it's an incredible story, a transcendental fable of injustice, crime, god, love, revolution and death. All the big questions. It's a workout for your heart and your brain.
            America has never had a national writer like Victor Hugo, a world figure who published "Les Miserables," a novel the size of an encyclopedia filled with both French history and the ordinary life of his country, especially in Paris, where the feats of daring criminals -- a sidetrack that doesn't make it into the stage version -- were lovingly recorded as if they were superheroes. The universal themes are there as well -- rich and poor, honor, morality, faith and suffering. In Hugo's novel young men vie for the honor of dying on the barricade for a cause. And yet its home truths are, well, close to home. On his death bed hero Jean Valjean reminds us "that to love another person/ is to see the face of God."
            The novel is set in a France that's both post-revolutionary and pre-revolutionary. The 1789 Revolution in which the poor stormed the Bastille and liberals of the middle and upper classes threw out the king is 40 years past; but France has once more fallen on hard times. It has a king, plenty of decadent aristocrats, and hordes of suffering poor -- for whom the term "les miserables" was invented. As the heroic street kid Gavroche explains: we had an old king, now we have a new king; they're the same. Paris is a smoldering caldron of tension, waiting for a spark.
            Meanwhile, we have crime and punishment, but no justice. Rural peasant Valjean has been sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister's child from starving. It's hardly an isolated case. There's a whole underclass of prisoner-slaves. The movie opens, appallingly, with hundreds of these wretches hauling on ropes to tug a gigantic man-of-war into dry dock while guards look down on them. They're all part of what today would be called "the system."
            The landscapes are different but the questions are still with us. In what country is the gap growing alarmingly between rich and poor? What nation has guards on its borders to keep out the poor? What country imprisons the largest percentage of its poulation?
            Valjean is patrolled from prison, but hounded as an "offender" and driven off from town to town.  He is saved by the intervention of the "true Christian" bishop who invests some surplus ecclesiastical silver in his reformation. Valjean turns to God and uses the bishop's silver to open a factory, becoming both a great success and the mayor of his town -- dressed to the nines, fawned over by the class of people who once despised him, and living a lie: it's one of the tale's great ironies.   
            However, he fails to intervene and save one of his factory workers (Fantine) from the same kind of devastating injustice that almost destroyed his life, because he's frightened and distracted by the arrival in his town of the prison guard, Javert, who may recognize him as the prisoner who jumped parole. He encounters her a couple of great songs later (she sings "I dreamed a dream": "...I dreamed that life would be so different/ from this hell I'm living now") as she's practically at death's door and about to be dragged off to jail by Javert for rejecting the abuse of a wealthy man. Abandoned by a lover "who took my childhood in his stride," Fantine is supporting an out-of-wedlock child. If she goes to prison, the child will die.
            Javert, the doctrinaire servant of the state, shrugs his shoulders. Valjean intervenes, takes her in, promises to send for her child. In the show's first-act emotional climax a dying Fantine is told by Valjean her daughter Cosette "will live in my protection/ Your child will want for nothing."
            "Monsieur," she replies in a final cri de couer as her soul shuffles off its mortal coil, "you're heaven sent!"
            We weep. I know I do. (Though, frankly, this comes off better on live stage than on screen). All children should have "protection." In making this vow, Valjean embraces the meaning of his life and becomes the man that his successful "monsieur le maire" could never be. 
            Valjean cannot save all his country's suffering children, but he goes off to save Cosette.          You know Cosette needs help her innkeeper/criminal guardian is portrayed in the film by Sasha Baron Cohen.
            Circumstances have caused Valjean to reveal himself. He and Javert have an explosive face-off in which Javert reveals his origins, "I am from the gutter too," and Valjean begs for time to help "a suffering child," but is rejected ("You must think me mad!/I've hunted you across the years/A man such as you"), before overpowering the policeman and making his escape.
            On stage this entire sequence is overpowering. The film dances around the characters, rather than pulling back and letting them stand as the archetypes -- they could be wearing ceremonial masks in the Japanese theater -- they are: Compassion versus Duty.
            After rescuing Cosette, Valjean flees to Paris to "go to ground," as the criminal/innkeeper puts it, hiding his identity to give the child a loving but closeted upbringing. Hugo's plot puts Valjean on ice until his role in the third-act climax, a narrative weakness that only the story's lavish and deeply stirring political story, with its new cast characters, succeeds in overcoming.   
            The action moves to the street of Paris, where we confronts the rags and haunted faces of les miserables, the student revolutionaries, the now-urbanized criminal gang of the former innkeeper, the inevitable Javert now backed up by ranks of uniformed "national guard." Taking center stage, young revolutionary Marius, estranged from his bourgeois family, falls in love with Cosette. The gang betrays Valjean's hiding place to Javert.
            And just as the rebel students take to the barricades to rouse the city's poor to a new revolution, all the strands of the story come to a head in a musical collision song (for which I'm unable to of a forma term; perhaps a sextet) called "One Day More."
            The many-sided "One Day More" tops any "Broadway" musical number I've ever seen. Playing the cast recording in the car while bellowing out as many "sung-over" lines as I could fit in, I used to have to pull off the road to keep from killing myself. The number climaxes, at least for me in Marius's decision: "My cause is here/ I'll fight with you!"
            Valjean plans to escape to London, dragging along the unwilling Cosette. Both young lovers are pulled apart by competing demands. The gangster's urban chic daughter (Eponine) declares her own hopeless love for Marius, for whom she sacrifices herself "when the bullets start to fly." Believing they "will see the people rise," the revolutionaries defend the barricade against the soldiers of the state. Javert spies on the rebels, is caught, and is saved from execution by Valjean, who has snuck into the barricade to save Marius for Cosette.
           The student leaders has warned, "Have you asked yourself what price you might pay?" Wounded when the barricade is overrun, Marius is about to pay it when Valjean drags him from the killing ground by some underworld heroics -- dragging the wounded man through the Paris sewers. This leads inevitably to another confrontation with Javert. But since Valjan has already spared Javert's life, Javert faces what proves to be a fatal crisis of faith. An insight: Javert, a believer, was on the wrong side. He should have stuck with his roots. I peg him as an anarchist in his next life.
            "Lez Mis" is a romantic tale, but not an easy one. The deaths of the young revolutionaries raise one of history's persistent questions: Is it worth giving up your life for a cause? Miraculously preserved, Marius sings: "oh my friends don't ask me/what your sacrifice was for..."
            There's more. When Valjean crawls off to a convent to die and not shadow the young people with the "scandal" of his criminal past, the newly married young people find him: all his secrets come out -- and all is forgiven.
            The reprise of the revolutionary anthem finishes the show as all its characters (both living and dead) sing about the better world to come. But does that "next world" mean "with God?" Or a new world after the revolutionary cause of justice -- "liberte, egalite, fraternite" -- has been achieved. That's the way the film, making spectacular use of its resources -- long barricades, flags waving, triumphantly smiling people -- plays it.
            "Beyond the barricades," this anthem asks, "is there a world you long to see?"
            You better believe it. Absolutely.
            We long for it, but we just don't see it.