Les Misérables (Raymond Bernard, 1934)

I have never read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. I have never seen the stage musical of “Les Miz”. I have never seen any of the three silent film adaptations of the book, nor have I seen any of the eight spoken-word non-musical adaptations of the film. I have not seen a single other film directed by Bernard, nor have I seen a single film starring any of the actors and actresses that are in this version. Therefore, I have only one reference point. Yes, you guessed it. It’s Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Sacha Baron Cohen’s film-of-the-musical from 2012. For this, I can only apologise.

To call this a single five-hour epic would be to bend the truth slightly, not least because it clocks in at a mere 4 hours 40 minutes. Actually, it was released as separate films in an episodic manner over a period of three weeks starting on 9th February 1934.

The first and longest part, Une tempête sous un crâne (Tempest in a Skull) tells the story of Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) as he finishes his prison sentence, then becomes increasingly frustrated that his past life as a convict blights him (his only crime being stealing a loaf of bread), having to hand in his prison documentation every time he enters a new town and constantly being pursued by Javert (Charles Vanel). Seeking a new start, he disposes of his papers and assumes a new identity, beginning a new life as Champmathieu.

The second part, Les Thénardier (The Thenardiers), concentrates primarily on the titular family acting as guardians to Cosette (Gaby Triquet, who sadly passed away two years ago), milking her mother for money and treating her like a slave. Her mother Fantine (Florele) is slowly approaching death due to the illnesses contracted through overworking to pay for Cosette’s falsely expensive upkeep. As this chapter concludes, we leave Champmathieu seeking to take sole custody of Cosette.

The third part, Liberté, liberté chérie (Freedom, dear Freedom) is set around the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, as the various interweaving plots come to dramatic conclusions.

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I know a lot of people who class themselves as Les Miserables aficionados. You know, the type that has been to see the show 180 times, know every word inside out and tell you “You might have liked the film but I’m not sure you’d like the stage musical.” Well, I didn’t like the 2012 film because some of the main cast can’t sing. This was worsened by the contrasting excellent vocal performances from Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks. It makes you wonder why they didn’t cast performers from one of the many stage adaptations there have been in the last 35 years. Of course, that’s because putting Borat in one of the main roles puts more bums on seats in the cinema, so it was clearly not an attempt to do a great piece of art justice, just an attempt to make money.

The main reason I say all of this is because if you want to get to the root of the purpose behind the original book, you have to read it. If you don’t have time (like me), then this is a great place to start. It is apparently the closest adaptation to the original source material there has been. What struck me was how deeply effective the characterisation was by Hugo of each of the characters. Each person is driven by a clear motive, and nothing is glossed over. It’s no small task to fully realise two or three major but conflicting characters in a story, let alone eight or more whose storylines are intertwined so tightly. It’s like Love Actually for the 19th Century. But good.

There are significant differences between this and the 2012 adaptation. Most surprising is the appearance of Valjean. Hugh Jackman he is not, so don’t expect to be swooning over him at any point. The Thenardiers are explored in great detail and are far more despicable, eliciting a far greater emotional response in me. Overall it’s just a more rounded experience, and far more satisfying as we journey through an epic story to a fittingly intense climax.

Visually, it is clear the 2012 film has borrowed from the 1934 interpretation. Most significantly I couldn’t help seeing the two stand-offs at the end with the rebellion fighters barricaded in the streets of Paris as being essentially identical shots. The tension was recreated blow-for-blow with very similar cinematography techniques. Why change something that works so well?

The Masters of Cinema release is fully loaded. The Pathé 4K transfer is extremely detailed, giving the film space over two discs to avoid unnecessary compression. The second disc features only Part III of the trilogy, so we are also treated to a large amount of supplementary features including documentaries, a 1905 short film Le Chemineau (The Vagabond) by Albert Capellani’s short film, a theatrical trailer, news reels and more. We also get a (now standard of Masters of Cinema) lavish 28-page booklet with five essays on the film.

So at almost five hours this is not for the faint-hearted, but you can cut it into three parts and digest this very faithful interpretation of the original story as you please. It’s a far cry from the 2012 musical film but it has a lot more to offer.

Les Miserables is out now on Masters of Cinema two-disc Blu-ray.

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