Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3. Our star rating (1-5): 5
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.. Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.
I John 2:7-10
French director Claude Lelouch’s beautiful homage to Victor Hugo’s great novel, now available on video, is far better than anything showing on the screen at the present. This epic film is not another adaptation of the novel (there are at least four of these). Directing his own script (and his young daughter, who plays Salome, a Jewish girl), Mr. Lelouch has given us not another literal rendition of Victor Hugo’s great novel, but, rather an interpretation of the novel as it influences a group of people during the Nazi occupation of France. The “Miserable Ones” in his version are Henri Fortin an illiterate furniture mover, and the Ziman family – Andre, Elise, and their daughter Salome – a sophisticated Jewish family desperately trying to flee the country as the Germans march in. Their fateful meeting leads to long-term consequences that will change not only their lives, but many others as well.
In what amounts to a prologue, the film begins on the night when the 19th slips away and the 20th Century begins – but for Henri’s father, the new century turns tragic – he is accused of the murder of his employer, when in reality the victim had committed suicide. Torn from his wife Fantine and young son, Henri, he is sent to a harsh prison where his escape attempts land him in an ever-deepening quagmire of trouble. His destitute wife is forced to work for a family of cruel innkeepers (the film’s counterpart to the novel’s Thenardiers), who soon force her into prostitution with their customers. After both parents die, young Henri is set adrift, eventually learning to make his way by boxing. He becomes’ a middleweight champion and, when he retires from the ring, is able to purchase his own truck and use his great physical strength in moving heavy furniture. So great is his strength that some call him Jean Valjean, the legendary strong, exconvict hero of Victor Hugo’s novel. Curious about Valjean, but unable to read himself, Henri jumps at the opportunity to have Andre Ziman read the book to him when the latter engages him to transport their furniture and themselves away from Paris and the oncoming Germans. As they travel along, we are shown several scenes from the novel, including a wonderfully staged Bishop’s Candlestick scene. (You may recall that this is the episode in which a desperate Jean Valjean, turned away from every inn and private house because of his yellow convict’s passport – “It’s like the yellow Star of David we Jews are forced to wear,” Andre Ziman interpolates – is warmly taken in by a humble Bishop, who orders his servant to bring on their best silverware. The next day, the servant reports the theft of the silver and the flight of their guest. But when the suspicious police bring the exconvict back, the silverware in his bag, the Bishop asserts that the supposedly stolen items were a gift, and he chides Vat jean for “forgetting” the two candlesticks – an incredible act of grace that eventually transforms the hardened man’s character.)
In this updated version of the story, the Bishop’s role is taken by the Mother Superior of a convent. Apprehensive about their chances of escaping to Switzerland, Andre convinces his reluctant wife that they should leave Salome in the safekeeping of the nuns, so that if they are caught, at least she will survive. It is obvious that the Mother Superior sees through their fiction that they are a Christian family, but she agrees to enroll the girl, even though the risk is great. She teaches Salome the Our Father, thus later preventing a suspicious Nazi from recognizing her pupil’s Jewishness.
Henri and the older Ziman’s continue their perilous journey, evading Nazi checkpoints and hiding out at night, Henri plunging ever deeper into Victor Hugo’s novel. He sees that not only he, with his sad past, but the Zimans, too, are “the Miserable Ones.” When he asks about anti-Semitism, Andre sardonically replies, “Anti-Semitism is like an impotent man who blames his wife. When the world is impotent, it blames the Jews.” Soon, the three are parted near the Swiss border, Henri promising to keep in touch with Salome at the convent. They have not finished the novel, but it’s influence on Henri has taken hold, so that his life, like that of his counterpart in Victor Hugo’s story, is lifted above the brutish level of self-centered survival to that of ~ man who The film has its Inspector Javert in the person of the Policeman, at first working for the Vichy government and collaborating with the Nazis, and then when the tides of war change, switching to the Allies’ side. His many encounters with Henri Fortin, who at first works with a gang of thieves, and then with the Resistance, parallel those in the novel. The Thenardiers reappear again later in the film in the persons of the farmer and his wife who give shelter to Andre Ziman after he is shot by the Nazis. At first their motives are altruistic, but, corrupted by the husband’s greed for Ziman’s money, they eventually become his jailers, keeping him hidden in their cellar for a time even after the war has ended by telling him that the Axis have conquered England and America.
Epic in scope, spanning forty years and two generations of the Fortin family, the suspenseful drama even includes the Normandy D-Day invasion. Like Victor Hugo’s novel, the film is a powerful parable of the power of love and grace to transform even the most degraded of characters.
The wonderful cast is headed by Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of France’s greatest stars (best known to American audiences as the swaggering thief-cop killer in Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1959 classic Breathless), who plays both Henries, father and son. Director Lelouch’s fine script is enhanced by superb editing, many of the transitions between the times and geography of the novel and the current characters enjoyable to watch.
The film’s story comes from Director Lelouch’s own background. He reports that when he was a five year-old child in 1942, his mother Eugenie was fleeing from the German-occupied section of France with falsified papers. As they tried to pass through a police station to the “safe zone” a controller appeared to be on to their scheme. Her “present” of her gold watch gained them safe passage. “What a Thenardier he is!” she sighed when they were safely past. ‘That night, as a bedtime story, she began to tell Claude Victor Hugo’s story, in which the Thenardiers take such ruthless advantage of the less fortunate. She interspersed instances of their current troubles to help her son understand the novel. Later, at two different stages in his life, Claude Lelouche read the novel for himself, each time enjoying its insights into human nature and the range of its action. As he entered his late fifties, the director decided it was time to create his own artistic response to the book, because Victor Hugo was 60 years old when he first published it.