Saturday, January 12, 2013

More is Les

The reception of Les Mis, and the reception of the reception, is almost more interesting than the movie itself. Curmudgeons, with David Denby leading the charge, have reacted coolly to the movie’s bald appeals to emotion, while Megan McArdle, at least one Andrew Sullivan reader, and other more enthusiastically weepy viewers have celebrated its passion, forthrightness, and lack of ironic detachment. As a theatre person who’s seen Les Mis twice on stage (and had some nice things to say about it in London), and who even owns one of the cast albums, I think I have at least some standing to offer an opinion on Tom Hooper’s filmic adaptation, and by extension the show itself and the phenomenon as a whole. 

The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation, in that for better or worse, what one thinks of the original show is likely what one will think of the film. Anne Hathaway is as great as you've heard, and Russell Crowe as awful. The recreation of 19th century France is gorgeous, but you'd never know it by the abundance of long close-ups on the singers' faces. The much-ballyhooed live recording of the singing keeps the proceedings intimate and not as histrionic as the stage version often is (more on that in a minute). Anyone who loves the musical already should be satisfied with the film, which does not at all attempt to convert skeptics.

Like the stage show, it's a whirlwind telling--though, notably, slightly more complete than the stage version--of Victor Hugo's magnum opus, the tale of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), his theft from and mercy granted by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean), and his subsequent redemption through saving the life of Cosette (Isabelle Allen, later Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the ruined Fantine (Hathaway) from the vicious Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and raising her to eventually fall in love with young Parisian Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is pined after by the Thenardiers' daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) and who with a group of students led by the revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) revolts against the re-established monarchy--with Valjean all the while evading capture by the justice-obsessed inspector Javert (Crowe).

Watching the show and the movie is sort of like reading that last sentence but with more elaborate adjectives and in all capital letters, and here is where we get to critics' complaints about the movie's emotional pushiness. Hugo’s novel is 1200+ pages long, which gives it ample time to unspool in a deliberate fashion. For every extended essay on justice or the Parisian sewers or the Battle of Waterloo, there’s a well-pitched, page-turning sequence—Valjean’s escape from a coffin, say, or his race against time to prevent an innocent man accused of being him from going to jail. Reducing the original, gigantic tome to fit three hours’ traffic of the stage can’t be done without a lot of corner-cutting, even with the amount of story that gets completely left out. By keeping all the main players and giving them their big moments as the musical does, the finer narrative details get butchered, to the point that it all plays like a Cliffs Notes version of the book: it hits all the major plot points, but with no concern for things like tension and pacing. Most of these plot points are decisive moments of crisis, which are played with maximum emotion and minimal context.

This is most true in the first half hour or so, when something new is happening literally every minute. It's the most interesting section of the film, an adaptation of an adaptation, in that its fidelity to the source material highlights all the more the difference between the two media. Onstage, it's easy enough to go along with the compressed action of the Valjean and Fantine exposition scenes, as even the most literal staging is at least somewhat abstracted. On film, however, we actually see this compression in action, and it's seizure-inducing. Like an extended music video, the rapid-fire montage editing cuts not just to a new angle, but a new scene every two or three seconds--Valjean will be outside a church one moment, on a rocky hill another, and talking to a stranger a third--settling down only to focus on an actor's face. It's profoundly jarring and discomfitting, and not in a good way, and it is perhaps the clearest illustration of the musical's manic way of telling its story. 

Things settle down once the action moves comfortably into the 1832 storyline, but characterization and development remain threadbare. Things happen, lots of them, but with only the minimum explanation of cause-and-effect (and sometimes not even that; the movie abridges a critical scene in the Paris sewers that, coupled with the actors additionally being covered head-to-toe in shit, makes it difficult to register what is even happening), with the operatic emoting of the characters doing the heavy lifting to get us through.

That operatic, sung-through score is the not-so-secret weapon in the show's arsenal against its audience. The basic idea of a musical is that characters break into song at moments of heightened emotion, when speech won't suffice. But the characters in Les Mis never stop singing. This is exhausting, and it gives the proceedings a sense of sameness over time. Sung-through musicals can be done well, to be sure, but they need lyrical and musical invention and a variety in moods to break things up. Sweeney Todd does this; Les Mis does not. It has a great deal of clunky lyrics (phrases like "the hate that's in your head" and "the cry of my hate" are particularly gross examples), and with the exception of the Thenardiers' handful of songs, the show's mood is deadly serious straight through, the better to ram home the emotions that the book (of the musical, not of Hugo) is not doing the work of cultivating.

This is what critics mean when they accuse the show of being manipulative. Of course all stories, and particularly Hugo's novel, are manipulative; but there's no art in the musical's artifice. Instead of playing with an audience's experiences and hopes and expectations to produce an emotional response, it takes the most obvious route of parading a frenzy of emotions with which it bludgeons the audience into following suit. (For a contrasting example, "Being Alive" from Company has more to say about life and love than Les Mis's entire libretto.)

Les Mis, the musical and movie is thus, basically, emotion porn. It’s skeletal storytelling to get to the goods, all climaxes with no foreplay. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that—lots of people like porn! And I even like and appreciate Les Mis for the emotion porn that it is! It's obviously very good at what it does. But let’s not pretend that it’s above criticism, merely because it’s popular. Were popularity the only barometer of quality, the Transformers movies would be stone cold masterpieces.


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