Les Miserables

Directed by Claude Lelouch

This is one of the greatest films ever made. Mark my words. History will bear me out. Acclaimed French filmmaker Claude Lelouch, whose classic examinations of intimate emotions include the Oscar-nominated "A Man and A Woman," paints a sweeping portrait of the human condition in his epic drama "Les Miserables," a twentieth-century tale inspired by the nineteenth-century masterpiece of French writer Victor Hugo. Lelouch’s "Les Miserables" focuses on two French families who struggle, hope, suffer and ultimately find love and friendship in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

The film stars international acting legend Jean-Paul Belmondo as Henri Fortin, a humble man whose life takes him through some of the most important events of contemporary times. As he alternately rises to heroism and sinks to criminal desperation, Fortin’s existence mirrors the struggle between good and evil that illuminates Victor Hugo’s character, Jean Valjean.

When Fortin meets and befriends the wealthy, intellectual Ziman family (Michel Boujenah, Alessandra Martines and Salome) who are fleeing French and German Nazi persecution of the Jews, he builds an unusual friendship with the brilliant but desperate trio. And for the first time, he learns the story of Jean Valjean and comes to see himself as a real-life extension of Hugo’s protagonist.

The Zimans read Les Miserables to the illiterate Fortin as he smuggles them across the country, and by the time their momentous journey is finally complete, they have all come to realize their roles in the parallel epics of literature and life.

With a stellar cast that includes Annie Giradot, Philippe Leotard and Clementine Celarie, Claude Lelouch incorporates vignettes from Fortin’s past, from the lives of Fortin’s and Lelouch’s own parents and from Hugo’s novel into the saga, spanning generations and delineating his—and Fortin’s—belief that, in the words of Willa Cather, "there are only two or three stories in the world and we must all live them over and over."

"Les Miserables," written, produced and directed by Claude Lelouch, and freely adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, begins at the start of the twentieth century, with a glittering New Year’s celebration that soon leads to a man’s suicide. Before we know it, another man—the lowly Fortin—is convicted of murder and serving time in a cruel prison.

The prison scenes were filmed at Fort Joux, a real jail hundreds of years old. The forbidding setting brought a sense of gravity to all of the actors and an air of timelessness to the story of man’s eternal suffering on Earth.

Meanwhile, Fortin’s adoring wife and young son await his release and try their best to survive until they are re-united. However, it is not to be. Fortin suffers in jail and dies, and his wife is turned to prostitution by the venal innkeepers who employ her. The young Henri lives a miserable existence, swallowed by sorrow, until he is taught to box.

After Henri Fortin leaves the inn and becomes a young soldier, the viewer encounters him about to begin a boxing match in an open hospital courtyard. He is surrounded by hundreds of wounded World War I soldiers; the year is 1918 and snow is falling heavily, giving the scene a hallucinatory air. Before the fight can begin, the end of the war is announced, and the soldiers begin joyously chanting "Fortin, Fortin!"

Scene after scene of spectacle and personal revelation follow, spanning decades and moving from elegant drawing rooms to wartime prisons to expansive outdoor landscapes. As the Nazi occupation of France begins to cast its shadow over the country, town after town and peaceful countrysides as well are transformed into terrifying traps for the Zimans and the thousands of other French Jewish families. The Zimans travel by train, by truck and by car, hiding in small towns and under floorboards, far from their beautiful home and fearing death every minute.

As they flee one house, merely steps ahead of their pursuers, they find themselves in the hands of Henri Fortin, and at the beginning of a friendship that is as strong as it is unlikely. Throughout the enormous events that follow for all of them, the focus remains on the personal fortunes, emotions and actions of the people who so fascinated Lelouch and his creative predecessor, Victor Hugo.

Many years after his sad childhood, Fortin returns to the Guillaumes’ inn as an adult, accompanied by three criminal accomplices, known as Addition, Blame and Bonnard (Ticky Holgado, Antoine Dulery and Jacques Bonnot). Fortin is pained by the memories of the treatment that sent his mother to her death, and determined to confront the brutal innkeepers who were responsible. But once he arrives he learns that the Guillaumes have died and their son and grandson, a much kinder duo, now run the inn.

After spending the night at the inn, Fortin’s group awakes to discover Allied ships lining the horizon. Though they are thrilled by this development, their happiness quickly turns to terror as they find themselves the target of a vicious shelling. Fortin once again demonstrates heroism in, ironically, defending the inn.

This is a film made by an artist at the zenith of his powers. The breadth and scope of this film reaches a level very rarely seen, and is usually accomplished by a director who has reached the age where his life’s experiences, knowledge of the artistry of cinema and imaginative fortitude all mesh to create an act of pure magic. Think of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, Akira Kurasawa’s Kagemusha, or Laurence Olivier’s King Lear. I was so dazzled after I saw this film the first time that I couldn’t believe what I had just seen and wanted, needed, to see it again. The way every scene, character, episode, even the music is integrated into the whole of the film left me wondering WHAT I had just seen. I saw the film again six days later and was able to better get an idea of the symmetrical beauty Lelouch has illustrated which perfectly encapsulates life’s rich pageant stretching over the first half of the twentieth century. This film is absolutely flawless. It is equal parts funny, despairing, poignant, courageous, thoroughly engrossing, beautifully photographed, supremely edited, perfectly paced. The casting of Jean-Paul Belmondo, with his hounddog face, as Jean Valjean is a stroke of genius because he is so genuinely able to show confusion, delight, joy, understanding, patience, anger, practically EVERY human emotion there is, which Hugo used and Lelouch utilizes, so brilliantly. And the beautiful French actress Alessandra Martines, who has not done as much acting in her life as she has dancing, gets the honor of embodying the film’s climax, which is one of the most satisfying emotional conclusions I’ve ever seen. Heaven. I’m in heaven. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. I’ve finally found the happiness I seek. When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek. The way those few innocent little words to a Glenn Miller song sum up this three-hour-film left me so happy I started to cry. THAT’S how incredible this film is. There is so much going on with the textural layers of the film that I really don’t want to reveal anything but the plot just because the riches the film holds are too delicious to describe unless you’re actually watching it unfold on screen. Maybe in another year, after everyone has seen this film, will I go back and do another review where I can illustrate what Lelouch has accomplished. He very obviously had a perfect image in his mind of the masterpiece he envisioned and has succeeded on every count. All I can and should say now is that this is probably the best seven dollars you’ll spend on a night of entertainment for a long time to come. Enjoy.