Les Misérables (1995)
A film directed by Claude Lelouch

Genre: Drama / War

Film Review

Les Misérables photo
Claude Lelouch's typically lavish take on Victor Hugo's celebrated 19th century novel is a sprawling, stylised epic which, instead of simply transposing the story to another era, takes keys elements of the novel and works them into a modern fable of love, loss and redemption. Most of the action takes place in France during the Second World War and is concerned with a Jewish family's attempts to escape the Holocaust. One of the themes of the film is that there are fundamentally only two or three stories, and these are replayed over and again throughout human history. This could explain why Lelouch manages so effortlessly to draw convincing parallels between the fraught experiences of the Ziman family and those of the characters in Hugo's great novel. The film may have been only a moderate commercial success on its initial release (attracting an audience of just over one million in France), but it garnered some very favourable reviews and won a Golden Globe in 1996 in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

For what is evidently one of his most ambitious and personal projects, Claude Lelouch assembles a talented cast which includes some of French cinema's best known actors (mostly, alas, in cameo roles). Taking the lead is Jean-Paul Belmondo, an iconic screen actor who, after a steady decline in popularity in the 1980s, made a remarkable comeback in Lelouch's Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté (1988). Perhaps revitalised by his stage work, Belmondo's performance in Les Misérables ranks as one of his finest. Not only does he successfully delineate the three characters he portrays (Fortin père et fils and Jean Valjean), but he gives the film the backbone it badly needs to prevent it from collapsing into a soggy heap. It is Belmondo's main character (a champion boxer turned removals man who ends up playing a crucial role in the Allied invasion) that makes the connection between Victor Hugo's novel and the events we see depicted in wartime France, and it is this character that draws together the various plot strands (of which there are perhaps a few too many) to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. This was to be Jean-Paul Belmondo's last hour of glory on the big screen. He never performed anywhere near as well in any of his subsequent films, which is perhaps why they were all (without exception) critical and commercial failures.

There are two other noteworthy performances in this film, those of Michel Boujenah and Annie Girardot. Boujenah plays the Jewish fugitive André Ziman with considerable charm and poignancy, but it is the character's humorous side that best serves the film and allows it to sneak into black comedy territory for the final act. Here, the Thénardiers episode of Hugo's novel is cleverly reworked into a grimly funny vignette in which Annie Girardot and Philippe Léotard attempt to rob Ziman of his entire fortune by keeping up the fiction that the Germans are winning the war. Girardot was awarded a Best Supporting Actress César for her performance in this sequence, and justly so. Just when the film is beginning to sag and lose focus, Girardot takes it by the scruff if its neck and kicks some life back into it. Other distinguished actors to watch out for are Micheline Presle, Jean Marais and Robert Hossein, and there is also a nice cameo by the comic actor Darry Cowl.

To date, there have been around twenty screen adaptations of Les Misérables. Claude Lelouch's is probably not the greatest film to bear this title - that honour must surely go to the 1933 version directed by Raymond Bernard and starring Harry Baur (excerpts of which appear in Lelouch's film). However, it is certainly one of the most inspired and interesting, bringing a fresh perspective to the novel. Not only is the film a worthy homage to one of the greatest works of French literature, it also provides a moving and surprisingly astute commentary on Nazi occupied France. If only Lelouch had been minded to trim some of the excess fat and gone a little easier on the saccharine, the film might well have eclipsed all of his other achievements. As it is, Lelouch's Les Misérables is a delight for anyone who is well-acquainted with the novel that inspired it, and an enjoyable epic-sized roller-coaster for just about everyone, whatever their literary tastes.
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France, 1900. When his employer shoots himself after a New Year's party, chauffeur Henri Fortin is condemned for murder and sentenced to a term of hard labour...
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Film Credits

Directed by Claude Lelouch
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Boujenah, Alessandra Martines, Salomé Lelouch, Annie Girardot
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