Best Pictures of 1934 (#3) – Les Misérables

(Raymond Bernard, France)

Raymond Bernard made the definitive version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of poverty, survival, duty, guilt, and all the other major themes, Les Misérables.  Other filmmakers have taken the bare bones of the plot and shoehorned it into a traditional movie run time, sacrificing characters and subplots that appear to be minor to the main story of Inspector Javert’s relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean.  By omitting the complete world Hugo created, other films have lacked the same depth that Bernard’s 1934 film captured.

We all know the story: a hardened criminal, Jean Valjean (Harry Baur), finds redemption through a series of incidents that convince him to lead a good life.  He becomes the mayor of a small town and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette.  But his past catches up to him when a police Inspector, Javert (Charles Vanel), recognizes him and Valjean is forced to go on the run.  Javert ruthlessly pursues the man through the vicissitudes of the 1848 revolution.  Valjean is willing to do anything to protect his adopted daughter, who has fallen in love with Marius (Jean Servais), a young revolutionary.

Bernard’s film, which runs about four and a half hours, develops not just Valjean, Cosette, Marius, and Javert, but other characters essential to the fate of all four.  Most noteworthy is the time he devotes to the wretched Thénardiers (Charles Dullin and Marguerite Moreno), especially after they have descended into abject poverty and hatch their plot to blackmail Valjean, Marius’ aristocratic uncle, the young Gavroche, Eponine, the almost saintly bishop, and the wronged chimney sweep boy.  By willing to linger over scenes, characters and moments, Bernard exhibits the same empathy for these characters that Hugo did when he created them.  Bernard is plainly passionate about the story and its characters.  We get the sense, for example, that Bernard could not have cut some of the early scenes with Gavroche because of his connection to the material.  How can we truly understand what Gavroche’s death means without understanding where he came from?

The picture isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection when so much is so special?  Sure the street barricade sequence probably goes on too long, but who cares when most others are handled so expertly?  I will sit through many poorly executed scenes for one great one and there are many more than one great scene in this movie.  Thinking back I remember Valjean’s evening with the bishop, his last act of crime against the chimneysweep, the final scene between Valjean and Javert in the carriage, and the trial of the man wrongly accused of being Valjean.  On the evening before the trial, as Valjean (now as Mayor Madeline) struggles with what he should do about the man falsely accused, Bernard spends a lot of time chronicling his internal moral debate.  How can he allow an innocent man to go to prison for his crimes?  But at the same time the only way to prevent it would be to confess and give up everything.  Bernard allows Madeline/Valjean time to grapple with the dilemma and the audience time to consider the implications of either course of action.

This scene is evidence that Bernard is more concerned with the moral development of the characters rather than the mechanics of the plot.  This is why this version of Les Misérables stands so strong: Bernard wanted to tell the story of redemption and sacrifice that Hugo told in his book.  I haven’t read the book since I was in high school, but after watching Bernard’s ode to Hugo and his characters I feel as though I understood the book better than I ever had.  It is a rare accomplishment for a movie to illuminate the themes of a book rather than obscure them.  Bernard’s dedication to Hugo shines through in this thoughtful, exciting, romantic, heartbreaking, and funny movie.

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2 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Pictures

2 responses to “Best Pictures of 1934 (#3) – Les Misérables

  1. Jason, I have promoted this film since the first time I saw it in its entirety only six years ago, and was overjoyed when Criterion announced it as an Eclipse release. Everything you say here is dead-on, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s a ravishing epic film based on the greatest novel ever written. (one I’ve read through twice, and continues to inspire me)

    I am so thrilled to see it high up on this list.

    • I had a feeling this is one you would be a fan of. It is one of the best movie adaptations of any book and definitely the best of Hugo’s. Again, it says something for the strength of this year that this movie only comes in at #3. Any other year and this could have easily landed at the top.

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