Les Miserables (France, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Claude Lelouch's Les Miserables is one of the year's motion picture triumphs: an epic drama that takes the themes of Victor Hugo's novel and transplants them to the twentieth century. Rather than merely re-telling a story that has previously been brought to life in a variety of different incarnations (including a hugely popular musical), Lelouch has chosen to take ideas, plot strings, and themes from the novel and apply them in a unique and tremendously effective manner to the greatest tragedy of this century: World War II and Hitler's Final Solution.

The film centers around four people whose lives are inextricably entwined. They come together, offer redemption and salvation to each other, then are ripped apart. The outsider is Henri Fortin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a former middleweight boxing champion-turned-truck driver who has agreed to aid a Jewish family in their flight from Nazi occupied France to Switzerland. The refugees are Andre Ziman (Michel Boujenah), a renowned defense attorney; Elise Ziman (Alessandra Martines), a premiere ballerina; and their young daughter, Salome (Salome Lelouch).

As Henri and his charges trundle across the French countryside, the illiterate driver requests that Andre read to him from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. As the story-within-the-story unfolds -- complete with filmed scenes lifted directly from the novel -- Henri is enraptured, seeing parallels in his own life to both Les Miserables' Jean Valjean and Cosette. Like Valjean after meeting the little chimney sweep, Henri is determined to devote the rest of his life to the selfless aid of others.

The rest of the film follows Henri, Andre, Elise, and Salome as their paths diverge and converge. Like a master composer, Lelouch overlays elements of Hugo's novel on each of their stories. Those familiar with Les Miserables will immediately recognize the boundless symbols and references -- some subtle, some obvious. Those who have never read the book, seen a previous filmed version, or experienced the musical will not be left floundering, however. Lelouch re-tells enough of the original that a person would have to be blind not to see the interconnections.

It's difficult to emphasize what Lelouch has accomplished with this movie. No film that I'm familiar with has so ably intersected a classical novel with a modern tale. It's been tried, most frequently with Shakespeare, but never has the result been such an unqualified success. This version of Les Miserables is a masterpiece precisely because it doesn't merely regurgitate Hugo's tale. It's something simultaneously new and timeless.

Above all, Les Miserables is a story of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Despite the title and its attendant images of misery, poverty, injustice, and oppression (all of which are present in one form or another), the movie is a decidedly uplifting experience, because its concentration is on the power to overcome. To be sure, there's much evil in this world, but there's good as well. For every Gestapo officer, there's a Henri Fortin or Jean Valjean willing to risk everything to save a small child.

Lelouch re-uses actors to underscore the parallels between Hugo's book and his own story. In fact, legendary French star Jean-Paul Belmondo, who turns in one of the best male performances of 1995, takes on three roles: Henri, Henri's father, and Valjean. Numerous other actors do similar multi-character duty. Names are also used to form connections. For example, Henri attributes the qualities of Les Miserables' Marius to a young man of the same name whom he takes under his wing. Then, there are times when clips from a previous, black-and-white version of Les Miserables are artfully intersected with Lelouch's all-color images.

Although Belmondo's performance is towering, his co-stars are exceptional enough not to be reduced to scenery. Michel Boujenah and Alessandra Martines are more than capable of holding up their corners of the story, but the real find is young Salome Lelouch, an impressive young actress who deserves more exposure in future features. As in Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (where the director's daughter had a key role), this is a rare instance when nepotism uncovers an acting gem.

One recurring theme throughout Les Miserables is that there are really only two or three stories that continuously repeat themselves throughout history. Lelouch uses his creative powers to drive home this point, mixing not only tales from two different centuries, but carefully developing similarities between Henri's life and that of his father, who dies early in the film. Themes echo and resonate through every minute of the nearly-three hour picture. The director is constantly reminding us that what makes a story great, whatever the medium chosen for its telling, is that in it we see ourselves and people we know. Nowhere is this more true than in Les Miserables. Whether Hugo's, Lelouch's, or both, you will rarely find a more powerful, cathartic, and ultimately satisfying narrative to immerse yourself in.

Les Miserables (France, 1995)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 2:54
U.S. Release Date: 1995-11-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1