Thursday, April 18, 2013

The World I Have Known Is Lost In Shadow...

So, I finally saw Les Miserables a couple days ago. I shall be honest and admit right off that I have never been crazy about that musical, so I was not particularly interested in the film, despite a stellar cast, and the truly exciting trailers I saw for it. My reaction to the movie was much as I expected it to be. I admired it exceedingly. It was well shot and well cast. The music was fantastic, the sets lovingly detailed, evocative, and often beautiful. It more than earns the praise that has been heaped on it, and I am glad that I saw it.

That being the case, however, I cannot say that I really liked it. Now, before you pick up stones to cast at me, I will freely own that this is a fault that lies in myself, rather than in the movie. It just doesn’t work for me. I cannot connect with it. I don't really care about most of the characters. I pity Fantine. I have sympathy for Eponine. I understand the students and their desire to fight for the poor, angry men. But I really do not care what happens to any of them... with two great exceptions.

The first is obviously Jean Valjean. I have a particular fondness for conversion stories. I think conversions are the truest form of character development, because no matter how good a person is, there always comes a time in which on must confront oneself – the sins and the weaknesses – and the response then will determine what sort of a person will emerge from that confrontation. Jean Valjean is introduced as a defiant, but broken man. He is bitter and makes it very clear that he considers his incarceration unjust, for though he stole a loaf of bread, it was in desperation, and for someone in more need than himself. It is clear that he does not consider himself a thief. He clings to his name, which is all he has of his old life. He is Jean Valjean, not No. 24601. Yet, when he has been granted parole, he falls into the very crime he has served time for, and this time, he steals for himself. An unexpected show of mercy saves him, and he is forced to face himself; alone and falling. He flees from that particular version of Jean Valjean, leaving behind the name he had fought to keep, and is able to re-create his life again, in time, putting the past behind him, and becoming an honourable and respected man. Les Miserables tells his story truly – for very few men are ever allowed to face themselves only once. Jean Valjean must repeatedly come to terms with his past, his sins, and himself, and each time, the life he has created for himself is at stake. But he has bargained with God, and given Him his soul, and the decisions he makes are based on his understanding of what God wants of the soul in His keeping. By the end of the story, he is not merely good and honourable. He is a Man of God, who has made peace with himself – both as Jean Valjean, and as No. 24601 – and with a world that has been unkind to him. His story is a very beautiful, very Christian story, and, in my opinion, is the reason to watch Les Miserables.

The second is... Javert. I went into the movie expecting to like him. I always liked him in the musical, and he was being played by Russell Crowe, who happens to be one of my favourite actors. What I was not expecting, was for Javert to become my runaway favourite character. I was not expecting to love him, to care desperately about what became of him. I was not expecting for the death scene, which I knew full well to be coming, to shatter me as it did, nor that I would end up crying over him almost as hard as I cried over Boromir the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings.

It is very easy to make Javert the villain of the piece, as he is at odds with every single protagonist in the story. He is Jean Valjean’s nemesis. He is another nail in the coffin of poor Fontaine, who is dying of grief and despair. To the students, he is an example of What is Wrong with France, and he is the enemy of the poor, angry men, for whom they are sworn to fight. Even amongst those who do not consider him a bad man, he is generally seen as heartless; an absolutist, blindly obedient to his duty, and to the letter of the law, with no compassion or understanding of the plight of his fellow man. He is too stern and too unyielding – too hard a man to properly be considered a good man... But while all of this is true, I do not think it tells the whole truth about his character, and Truth has this odd attribute about it: that unless the whole truth is known, Truth itself can be misleading.

Unlike Jean Valjean, whom we see rise, and fall and rise again, Javert is seldom allowed to reveal anything of himself, save for the lawman's face. It is worth pointing out, that even at his hardest, Javert is scrupulously just. He will execute the law to its full extent, but not one step further than that. He is exacting, but he is neither malicious nor cruel. When Jean Valjean protests his nineteen years as a slave of the law, Javert corrects him: “Five years because of what you did, the rest, because you tried to run.” Not so much to rub it in, but to be very clear. The sentence was five years only, and he would have been free at that time, had he accepted those terms. It is also well to remember that Javert is as hard on himself as he is on other people, and when he believes himself to be in the wrong, he voluntarily submits himself to the law, without a single word of defense. Both points speak in his favour. But though he seldom lets down his guard enough for us to see beyond Javert the Man of the Law, there are little glimpses throughout the film that show him to be more than that. He is a man who delights in the view from high places, who loves beauty and order, who prays to God in the calm and beauty of the night, and who sings to the stars. He is a man who is so moved at the sight of the small, dead body of youngest of the revolutionaries that he pins his own medal to the boy’s chest; a man who could take a beating, and face violent death without fear. For all his faults - and they are many - there is a beautiful soul hiding deep within Javert. So how could a man like that be so hard that the only thing that could break him is mercy?

During the sword-fight with Jean Valjean in the Confrontation scene, Javert lets slip a single, extremely telling fact about himself: that he born in jail, and that he is from the gutter too. He knows the gutter folk, perhaps better than they know themselves, and perhaps that is part of the problem. The sight of suffering is hard to bear, especially if it recalls one’s own sufferings and compassion can be a very painful virtue. Impatience is easier, because it distances the suffering, and contempt is easier still. Somehow, like Jean Valjean, Javert has managed to bring himself up from the gutter, to become a good and respectable man. Yet, who knows what it cost him to do so. One cannot make so complete a break as that, without there being a price to it. One of the unchangeable truths about life, is that at some point, each and every person will endure the experience of watching his world fall to pieces around him - in a big way, or a small, it doesn’t matter. The result is always that same: one looks around at a world in chaos (or so it seems) and tries to bring back order and control. And that is Javert – the man who is striving with obsessive single-mindedness, to restore order to a mad, chaotic world that continually falls to pieces around his head. Perhaps the trouble with him is not that he is too hard, but that he cannot be hard enough; that he is afraid of that softness in himself, and cannot see it as strength. Perhaps it was not Mercy, pure and simple, that was too much for him to bear, but the strength that lay behind it – a strength which made him feel less strong. Perhaps it was Love when he expected hatred, and when he was hating himself. It can be extraordinarily difficult to accept love when one knows oneself to be unloveable. Whatever it was, when Javert finally fell in flame, too far to rise again on his own, I wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be able to put my hand out to him and save him – and at that moment, I did not care at all what it would cost me.


Anonymous said...

Oh I saw the Les Miserables movie too.I agree with you on EVERTHING, btw.

ah Javert. His death left me sobbing. Like "CHOKE SOB CHOKE" (on that note have I found an LOTR fan??!) Also, I found it beastly unfair. Why did he have to commit suicide?! Like you, I knew the story well enought, yet I didn't want to believe it to be so. I begged him not to jump. And then I cried. (You know that scene where he puts his medal on Gavroche? that may have had something to do with it) You like Russel Crowe too?! OH YAY! I thought he NAILED that role, especially in the song about the stars. He brought a heroric side to it. but then I've always liked Javert.

Valjean is AMAZING! "What have I done sweet Jesus, what have I done?..." :') I adore that man. I was truly upset when he died. I guess I wasn't the only one to finish that movie and think "That was the most horrible thing... EVERYONE DIED except Marius and Cossete! WHAT KIND OF STORY IS THAT??!

Great review :) I'm glad to find someone who feels the same way I do

Freya Rose

Bella Rose said...


I love Javert, I've always loved Javert. He is amazing. LOVE

Amy said...

This post made me feel all emotional! *Shu-reek!* It was very well written.
I loved Javert too. He and Jean Valjean are my favorite characters. That whole story is pretty depression, no? *Sniffles*
Poor Javert tried so hard. And if he had just a smidgen of compassion he would have been amazing.
When you said that about how only mercy could break him...*Waaaaaa!*

Anyway. Loved this post. :)


Katrina DeLallo said...

They were my two favourites too. I always loved them best. Except in the musical, where Enjolras is played by Anthony Warlow. Then, I really was passionately fond of Enjolras, too. :) But otherwise, I cried over the other stories, but Jean Valjean and Javert had the truest stories to tell.

Mahri said...

Freya Rose ~ thanks very much for the comment! I agree that Russell Crowe nailed Javert. He is perfect for roles like that; very strong, complicated, human men. I loved all the little touches of personality he brought to the character. And I loved the Stars scene. I think it was one of the most beautifully filmed scenes in in the whole movie.

Yes, I am a LotR fan... Actually, I am a huge Tolkien fan. I think I have read just about every single scrap of writing he ever produced. I enjoyed the movies - Sean Bean was the perfect Boromir, and Boromir is my favourite Man. I like the books even better. There is no one else who can write like Tolkien did. I admire him greatly.

Bella and Amy ~ aw, thanks. It sounds heartless to say that I am glad it made you emotional, but... well, I am. Really good stories do make you think about them, and I have been thinking about Les Mis for days now. I think it was good for me - and I mean that in the best possible way. But I am still rather sore of heart over Javert :-)

Kat ~ oh, yes. Anthony Warlow is a fantastic Enjoras. He's got tons of character and passion, and it comes out in his singing. I think he could take the most boring role ever, and still breath life into it.

Jack said...

It took me awhile to get Javert's story. What first drew me in was ValJean's. Like you, I like redemption stories and his was one of the best I'd ever heard. I wanted to encourage him to not give up hope, to accept the kindness of the Bishop when it was shown him. And when he gave up his old life to try and make things right, to start over, I cheered and willed everything to work for him.

But then I met Javert, slowly, the more times I listened to the story and watched the musical.

I don't think he and ValJean are all that different, at least not as different as Javert seemed to think them. Both suffered and fought to become better men. One turning to the law in a desire to make sure it was never broken. He is viewed as a villain, but all he was doing was upholding the law. He believed what he was doing was right, and maybe it wasn't as wrong as many who have heard the story are lead to believe. After all, we are commanded to obey the law, and here were people breaking it and it was his duty to stop them.

But all that said, I like how the movie brought out his struggle more. He didn't seem to come off as the bad guy, not like in the other versions I've seen. He came off, to me at least, what he was. An officer doing his duty. And for once, we get a glimpse at what must have been a great kindness under his stern exterior. His willingness to admit to a fault and wishing to accept whatever punishment might follow it with courage. (And then his confusion with ValJean told him it was all well and he didn't wish a punishment.)
Then there was the ending. The one huge difference, I think between the two of them.

When shown mercy, ValJean was able to accept it. He took it and used an act of kindness to change his life.

Javert, however, when he was shown mercy - the sparing of his life when he knew he should have been shot, especially since it was by the man he'd hunted so long - he didn't know what to do with it. He deserved to die! He should have been killed! He was a spy, and he was caught. And ValJean let him go - while he himself returned to die with the students. And I wanted to grab Javert off the bridge and tell him his life didn't have to end. That he could go on, even with this new mercy shown him. His death was one of the ones I cried hardest over.

And now that I've rambled...I really liked your review! One of the best I've read.

Anna Grace said...

Howdy! Just found you blog. :)

I too love Javert. I believe he is my favorite character actually {perhaps only passed by Valjean...and that's only because of an adaptation I grew up watching.}

I think I love him because I envy his steadfastness so much. I mean - it takes some strong convictions to try to get himself dismissed from service when he mistakes the mayor for Valjean. Like, seriously. O.O

But at the time, I think he's got the most tragic story to tell. He believes in something to greatly, and has spent his whole life chasing something that's not there --- but he completely missed the one way to gain life with Christ, and is clueless when given grace. I believe he is truly the Miserable one in Les Miserables. :'( To come so far, but to have missed the mark to greatly. I about cry every time I listen/watch his suicide. So tragic. I'm going to do a post tomorrow about him on my blog.

Okay, this comment is getting long. :) I agree with your post 100% btw!

~Anna Grace

Anonymous said...

Oh that is so very refreshing! I love Tolkien too - it helps that he is Catholic :) Ah Borimir, the Unsung Hero. So many people hate him and I can't grasp why. What about his fight for the hobbits? HE WAS A BRILLIANT MAN!He was of Gondor! Also, that brilliant scene in the extended edition with him and Farimir cuts me every time. (on that note, I LOVE Farimir)Borimir's death makes me cry every time. As in ALL NIGHT and weeks after. Heartbreaking :'(

Which do you like Better the books or movies? I adore both, though there are aspects of each which I prefer. (Such as Theoden remembering Eowyn before he dies) I assume you've watched the extended. That is the only one I ever watch. I have many reason

1) All of Farimir's best scenes were cut out in the original
2) The fellowship getting their gifts wasn't there (What about Borimir, btw?)
3) Eomer finding Eowyn should have been there. It was so very touching, how could you cut that out??

there are other reasons but those are my top three. what do you think?


John Boswell said...

The Wolverine in Redwall was very scary. I think he might be the meanest bad guy in all the books.

You can come to Redwall with me and eat the chestnuts, but if you can't I'll bring lots back.

Mahri said...

Hi Anna Grace. Welcome to my blog :-) and thanks very much for the comment. I also admire Javert's steadfastness and courage of conviction. I want to be more like that. I also agree that he is the miserable on in the story - especially as the translation of that French word is more along the lines of the poor-wretched-person, rather than "miserable" in English. Everyone else who hit rock-bottom in that story had someone in their lives; Fantine had Cossette; Jean Valjean had a family; Eponine had Marius' friendship, if not his love. As far as we know, Javert had no one at all. He had been beaten senseless, spent a night in bitter pain, tied up and expecting a death he probably welcomed.... And then, he was unexpectedly delivered by a man who should have been his enemy. It might very well have been the first time he had to accept Grace on those terms - that God can send His Grace and Forgiveness through the cooperation of a man. And at that moment, he just couldn't take it.

I am looking foward to reading your post!

Miss Melody Muffin said...

I still haven't seen this movie yet and I'm DYING to!!

I read the book last year and then saw the anniversary concerts of the musical. I loved the musical and am every bit as excited over the new movie as I am over The Hobbit.

Valjean's transformation is amazing and such a beautiful testament to the saving power of love and grace.

I agree with your viewpoint on Javert. I've always insisted that while he is the antagonist, he is NOT the villain. (The Thenardiers are the villains.)

You like Boromir!!!! He's not my top favorite LOTR character, but he is one of my favorites (truth is, just about all of the characters are my favorites :D). I think some of the people who don't like him don't really understand him. And his death scene is so HEARTBREAKING!!

Mahri said...

Miss Melody ~ Thanks so much for all your comments. I always get excited when I hear from someone new.

Les Miserables is a very good movie. I hope you get to see it soon. I am not usually much of a musical sort of person, but this this was so very well done that I enjoyed it far more than I was expecting too. I love movies that give you something to think about afterwards, so I appreciated the themes of faith, and grace, love, hope and redemption that run all through the story. I completely agree with you on the Thenardiers as the villains.

I don't understand why people do not like Boromir either. He is a fantastic character. I know that he falls badly when he tries to take the ring from Frodo, but he had such a burden of responsibility on his shoulders, and he dies defending Merry and Pippin, and doing is his best to make it right. I find his story very encouraging and uplifting. (Although, I think Pippin might be my very favourite LotR character.)