Tuesday, February 05, 2013

CGAA Cinema: Les Misérables (2012)




Film musicals are something of an unloved and tricksy genre.  For some audiences, the film musical is simply too artificial a construct.  True - all genre is constructed and unreal - but the film musical draws unabashed attention to its artifice.   For many, the moment cast members begin to sing their stories is the moment their suspension of disbelief dissipates irrevocably. 

Recent film musicals have sought to assuage this discomfort by setting their stories in environments in which 'song and dance' are integral to the world in which the narrative takes place.  In these films, protagonists are 'show folk' - their outbreaks of jazz hands and habit of soliloquising through song is to be expected (and forgiven).  It is an extension of their profession and not some sudden fugue state.  Cabaret  (1972), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002), and Burlesque (2010) and Fox television's Glee are all examples of musicals wherein the song and dance stuff is 'not life' but rather 'showbusiness-as-usual'.  The other category of film musical that causes less cognitive discomfort is Disney's now side-lined 2d tradition of animated features, which owed as much to Broadway as they did to the House of Mouse. It seems that it is marginally less disturbing for cinema audiences if it's an animated bear, mermaid, hunchback or Chinese female-to-male impersonator who is pausing the action for an impromptu power ballad.

A celebrated example of a film musical wherein spontaneous singing and dancing is neither a flashmob, legitimised by occupation or location, nor performed by cartoon characters is Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961) - an adaptation of the stage musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet by another name, with Shakespeare's feuding families re-booted as feuding street gangs on the streets of New York.  West Side Story won 10 Academy awards, including Best Picture - and it's a triumphant film, wonderful, moving, resonant, timeless...

... and yet there's still that odd, alienating spectacle of characters singing so suddenly and dancing in magical unison; of macho street gangs colliding in a fight that is balletic and hyper-stylised; of star-crossed lovers singing when they should be snogging or sobbing.  The film musical in which the essential artifice of the format is brazened out, embraced and staged unapologetically is rare indeed - and risky, and Tom Hooper's Les Misérables is one of these.  Based on the blockbusting stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables charts the fates and fortunes of a group of characters in the lead up to the failed June Revolution of 1832.  

Much has already been made about Hooper's intention to honour the grim conditions of the story's historical milieu by making his cast sing live on set (and on location) without sweetening their vocal performances in post-production.  But what a strange idea: seeking authenticity in a genre as blatantly artificial as the musical, wherein the majority of dialogue is sung, not spoken.  Hooper makes frequent recourse to that filmic shorthand for verisimilitude - the hand-held camera, lending the aesthetic of documentary and raw immediacy to scenes of complete theatrical fantasy; starving masses singing in unison; singing prisoners dragging a ship into dry-dock; singing prostitutes, singing soldiers... 

And yet, somehow, Hooper accomplishes something extraordinary - not consistently, and not I suspect to everyone's taste - but for me at least Les Misérables accomplished moments of genuine cinematic rapture.  At times, this most improbable chemistry of camera, actor, performance and score went as far as leaving me breathless with delight.  It shouldn't have worked; how could it?  How could the basically surreal and awkward spectacle of Hugh Jackman - starved and shaven-headed - singing directly at me down the lens of an unerring, unflattering camera while a disembodied, unseen orchestra rang out with plangent melody be anything more than ridiculous?  How was it possible that I felt instead that I was witnessing a performance of especial reality? It felt raw, naked, exposing, true - truest.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  

I already knew before I watched the film that Anne Hathaway's performance as the tragic Fantine was stealing limelight.  I was prepared to be resistant in a cynically begrudging way to the worst excesses of  the pre-Oscar-buzz.  My resistance was short-lived.  It is no small achievement for an actress to so rescue I Dreamed A Dream from the likes of Susan Boyle and a thousand big finishes on a thousand big cruise ships; to transform it from a maudlin and ubiquitous showtune to a despairing elegy to a young life-in-ruins.  One of the underlying principles of musicals is that when emotions run too high, characters sing instead of speak, because only by singing can they communicate the 'reality' of their feelings.  I'd argue this short scene makes this argument convincingly; Fantine sings because words alone are insufficient.  She sings because she must.  If Hathaway doesn't get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for these luminous four minutes and forty seconds of fragile, furious transformation, I'll be very surprised and not a little disappointed. 


18 comments:

  1. I haven't seen the film yet but from an outsider point of view I just cant help but see the Les Miserables film as a fairly cynical production. After all, most of the hard the work is done thanks to the long established and hugely successful stage production. I mean, how hard must it of been to add a flashy visual layer and decent acting performance to something already long considered a classic?

    I think films like Robert Altman's Nashville and Martin Scorsese's New York, New York are potentially more interesting modern (sort of) examples. They exist as 'cinema only' without a previously existing theatrical legacy to draw from.

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  2. There's nothing cynical about 'rapture' Tom! :) I think you're intellectualising an experience you're yet to have and also I wonder how 'cynical' Tom Hooper's engagment with the creative process of direction was? And I wonder how 'cynical' those performances are? Cynical might describe the mechanics of getting the film funded and marketed, but it's surely reductionist of you to argue that, ergo, the film is 'cynical' and without risk in purely filmic terms. Hmmm 'flashy visual layer' - sounds a bit punitive to me - not to say puritan! :D


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  3. :D I think this film was always going to be a success in box office terms due to, as Tom says, the success of the musical, but it might not have been a terrible move to have sailed on tested waters. It meant they could put the attention in that was needed for it to work on screen without fearing absolute failure. This free-pass could have meant they take the easy root and just perform the musical, as written, in front of a camera with big names on the poster. Instead the film manages to take the power of the musical and the power that music has over us as humans and press it in to cinematic realism. We're brought into the world in the same way any film does but this world includes, in it's 'suspension of disbelief bubble', people who sing internal monologues, no more bizarre than a titan-size gorilla or a man getting super-powers from a spider.

    The narrative is just constant injustice and tragedy with the smallest glint of hope which is the premise of so many films and the news that we've become desensitized. It's so easy to be anonymous and detach from the world but music reaches a different part of us it seems, it feels intimate and personal. Les Mis feels to me as if it could slot into another category (in terms of my DVD collection it'll most likely end up in the 'serious film' section) because it's not like other musical films that use music for fun like 'Mamma Mia' which is enjoyable because it feels like people enjoying themselves performing, Les Mis uses the singing to allow the audience into the private world of the character in a way that won't allow detachment. There's no subtext or ambiguity because if you didn't catch the lyric it's right there in the tonality of the score.

    For a good week after seeing the film I felt empowered and was ready to rebel and fight and die for something I just didn't know what.

    That's my first attempt at discussing cinema on here. Sorry if it's naive at all... I have to start somewhere :/

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  4. It probably doesn't help I found Tom Hooper's last two film's to be overly sugar-coated for my liking anyway, and thus see the film as a further extension of his ever so slightly pandering, nicely timed around awards season, film style. I admire his ability, but it doesn't mean I have to like his films.

    @ Sammy. I'll give it a shot one day, I'm sure, but then I've also never really liked any theatrical performance turned cinema - and this extends to highly regarded Shakespeare adaptations. It just doesn't work for me. Keep it where it belongs, in the medium it was designed for.

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  5. I loved Anne Hathaway's version of 'I dreamed a dream', she put so much effort into it, unfortunately the rest of the film was a bit of a disappointment for me. I found it good but certain bits I just sat there thinking 'you needed to slow that bit down' or 'you needed to have him do something more other than just that'. Some bits needed a bit of refinement I though XD (especially the Jean ValJean scene where he picks up the ship mast to prove his strength- that to me needed a bit more before Russel Crow starts giving out paroles).

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  6. @ Charlotte - I thought much the same thing re. 'you needed to have him do something more than that' - I thought this especially about Eponine's 'On My Own' - she just wandered about in the rain, and the energy dissipated; like I said, I found it an inconsistent film in terms of its internal logic and 'realism'

    @ Tom 'Keep it where it belongs, in the medium it was designed for.' Puritan!

    @ Sammy "We're brought into the world in the same way any film does but this world includes, in it's 'suspension of disbelief bubble', people who sing internal monologues, no more bizarre than a titan-size gorilla or a man getting super-powers from a spider" - fab! Nice argument - the essential ridiculousness of most cinema. You should write about cinema more often, Sammy. I enjoyed your riposte very much.

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  7. I also haven't seen Les Mis yet but it is on my to do list, I did however watch "I dream A Dream" after discussing the film with Phil the other day and I found it an almost sublime 5 minutes. The lighting combined with both elements of the performance (singing and acting)and the score elevate the piece to a sum greater than its constituent parts. As a rule I tend to find musicals grating, there are a few exceptions of course, however I feel Les Mis may be more than just a musical, I feel Sammy may be right in that it sits on a slightly different shelf.

    When I have seen it I will be able to make a more informed comment.

    @ Tom, surely if we kept mediums where they belong we wouldn't have been graced with pleasure of your Dorian Gray or Bosch;P I also feel it is a bit limiting to base your expectations of a work based on an experience of previous works.

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    1. "...surely if we kept mediums where they belong we wouldn't have been graced with pleasure of your Dorian Gray or Bosch ;P I also feel it is a bit limiting to base your expectations of a work based on an experience of previous works..."

      He's got you there, Thomas! ;)

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    2. Adapting words of a novel to screen is completely different to adapting something already hugely visual to screen, in the case of Dorian Gray as a comparison to the newest Les Mis at least. Bosch, I dunno, that was my Dada-phase or something.

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  8. @Phil Yes Eponine's 'On my own' was a bit dull however another part I found frustraiting is when Fantine hurts the violent gentleman...seemed a bit rushed that bit. You had her go from being really depressed to suddenly striking out. Could have been slowed down that bit XD.

    @Simon Good argument there, you tell him XD

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  9. My ideal is that the movie industry spends it's money making original content rather than using its powerful claws to grab at established properties. It's pervasive through the remake/reboot culture. I just see Les Mis as part of a wider symptom of the creative malaise, which is infecting Western cinema at the moment. I would just rather see the original thing, unabridged and not shoehorned (though admirably perhaps I'm sure) into film. That's all. I'm glad it's done well for British cinema economically speaking, but it doesn't go against any trend, or attempt to buckle the long term stagnation which ultimately all this will cause.

    The difference in adapting books, is that they need to almost be entirely recreated - visually and as words on a script - to be bought to cinema, to even have a chance at working as 'film'. The best adaptations are entirely separate pieces of culture. Which is why I'm not having a whinge at the theatrical production.

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    1. Isn't there a whiff of nostalgia in your argument, Tom? For some 'golden age' of originality? Like you, I'm painfully aware of the safeness of much of what Hollywood gets behind and banks on, but David Lean's adaptation of Great Expectations, for example, is surely an example too of established properties (and audience share) being factored in? I don't think we're poorer cinematically or culturally for that 'safe bet'. Besides, the history of cinema is littered with unoriginality; every decade has its iconoclasts and it's mimics too. So what's your view of West Side Story, for example? Or Cabaret? Are these similarly examples of 'bad film form' simply because they happened to be filmed versions of musicals? Is West Side Story an example of stagnation? Is Cabaret? Is The Shining? After all, The Shining was optioned, bank-rolled and marketed because it WASN'T original content, not because it was... The notion that cinema has a 'responsibility' to its own format is a bit 'uptight Modernist' for me ;)

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    2. Tom I think that you may have become a little jaded about western cinema. Sure there have been far too many "easy" transitions from one medium to another, but when it has been transferred masterfully and with aplomb then surely that is something to be applauded rather than tarred with a one size fits all brush, I am certain that this particular film will expand on the audience of the theatrical version, some may in turn visit the theatre, some others may read the original source material surely that can only be a good thing.
      Unfortunately for your ideal is that it is just that an ideal. After several millenia of story telling maybe we are starting to exhaust the original ideas that are acceptable to the mass market. Original content is something very hard to define you only need to look at the shockwaves that 'The Seven Samurai' created to see that it has been influencing film makers for nigh on 60 years, from spaghetti westerns to Pixar classics the inherent narrative has remained intact. Amongst those reboots are some classic films so the remake/reboot culture is nothing new nor is it restricted to western cinema just look at some of the Bollywood rejigs for a giggle. I don't think that this adaptation is the problem. Instead I feel that it is the safe/ easy/unoriginal reboots that are jading film making, every now and then a good reboot comes along, sometimes, dare I say it another look in another media is needed.

      Apologies if this is a bit rambling the original was three times longer and didn't half go on :) As usual Phil gets a similar point across with much more pose and aplomb.

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  10. In regards to Cabaret and West Side Story, then yes I'd probably say there isn't a real need for those to exist as films either, despite their credentials. I also never explicitly called Les Mis a bad film either (other than my slight indifference to past Tom Hooper films), and I'm not calling out Caberet and WSS as bad films either. I just wouldn't classify them under any sort of banner other than cheap cinema. There are better examples of 'musical cinema' out there than the ones you've pointed out. Besides, you know I'm an uptight modernist when it comes to this sort of thing. :)

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    1. and I am a promiscuous popularist :)

      So - is your argument centred around a view of cinema's responsibility to itself as an autonomous art form; that cinema only equals cinema if certain attributes are included/excluded? If so, what are those attributes?

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    2. I'm going to produce a more expressive post on this subject. Stay tuned! :)

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