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Les Miserables

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  Les Miserables Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.80 /10
Henri and Roger Fortin ...... Jean-Paul Belmondo , M. Ziman .................... Michel Boujenah, Madame Ziman ................ Alessandra Martines
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Directed by: Claude Lelouch
Written by: Claude Lelouch . Based on Victor Hugo's novel.

Released: 1995
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: France
Length: 174


Lelouch's screenplay tells the story of an illiterate ex-boxer turned removals man, Henri Fortin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who - around the time of the Second World War - becomes obsessed with the way his own life, and the life of those around him, mirrors that of Hugo's hero Jean Valjean. Henri's father Roger (also played by Belmondo) has suffered wrongful imprisonment like Valjean; Henri's mother (Clementine Celarie) has had to resort to prostitution, like Hugo's heroine Fantine, in order to feed her family. Henri starts out as more flawed than Jean Valjean, but he shares his impressive physique and kind heart. Inspired by a book he has never read - though he has seen the film - Henri improves himself until eventually he becomes Valjean's moral equal.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Les Miserables may sound gloomy, but it's a joyous surprise. It well deserved its awards from the London and Los Angeles critics as Best Foreign Film. Writer-director Claude Lelouch is best known for his ultra-romantic hit of 1966, A Man and A Woman, but this is far superior - a mature masterpiece which can rank alongside the historical epics of David Lean.
It's a historic event in itself. In the last decade, only four foreign-language films have crossed over from the art houses to become mainstream hits: Jean de Florette, its sequel Manon des Sources, Cinema Paradiso and Cyrano de Bergerac. Now, there should be a fifth.
But first, a warning. This is not the long-promised film of the blockbuster musical. Nor is it a straightforward retelling of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. It is something much more ambitious, and vastly more original.
Lelouch's film, which includes beautifully mounted scenes from Hugo's novel (with Henri imagining himself as Valjean) is not merely a tribute to a classic novel, but also a homage to the inspiring qualities of great art in general. Its own storytelling virtues are unashamedly old-fashioned; but for anyone who admires the sweep, richness and humanity of the great nineteenth century novelists, the film will be an unalloyed delight.
Where Hugo's classic takes place against civic unrest in early 19th century Paris, Lelouch's masterpiece is centred upon Germany's twentieth century occupation of France. Henri becomes a hero because of the way he befriends a diffident Jewish lawyer (Michel Boujenah), his beautiful ballerina wife (Alessandra Martines) and daughter (played by Lelouch's own daughter, Salome). It is Henri who helps them escape from the 20th century equivalent of Hugo's implacable Javert, a nameless French policeman (Philippe Khorsand) who is collaborating with the Nazis.
Henri's story turns out to have much in common with Hugo's melodrama, but Lelouch never follows the original plot so slavishly that his film seems anachronistic or incredible. And it contains just as much tugging of heartstrings.
The ultimate message is of hope, but there are scenes of horror and darkest pessimism - of hopeful Jews racing across snow towards Switzerland and freedom, only to suffer gut-wrenching betrayal; of apparent saviours turning into grasping murderers; of Henri's father plotting, swimming and climbing to escape from prison, only for... on second thoughts, I shan't spoil it for you.
The film is on a truly epic scale with more than 100 speaking parts and even a re-enactment of the Normandy landings, but the leading actors are anything but dwarfed.
Annie Girardot and Philippe Leotard stand out as hard-working peasants corrupted by lust and greed, while veteran actors Jean Marais and Micheline Presle also make their mark as a bishop and mother superior, the film's most unequivocal embodiments of good. Michel Boujenah is touching as a Jewish lawyer suffering in times where his skills are irrelevant and only his race matters, while Alessandra Martines is heartbreaking as his gentle, gentile wife.
But the star is the 62 year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose three performances here as Henri Fortin, Henri's father and Jean Valjean are a revelation, almost forty years on from his days of stardom in Godard's debut, A Bout de Souffle. Belmondo's once ugly features have been weathered by the years into a photogenic ruggedness. And how refreshing it is to see an actor embodying moral goodness in a totally unsentimental way.
The film also manages to deal sensitively with one of the few taboo subjects in French cinema: wartime collaboration with the Nazis. Claude Berri's recent film Uranus attempted to cover the same topic, but with much less success. This illuminates the dark recesses of the period in a very humane, non-judgmental way, helping to explain if not excuse why so many French people did not join the Resistance.
Lelouch's chief fault as a director, a taste for romantic melodrama, is ideally suited to the material. His many spectacularly over-the-top images - of convent children joyously celebrating the Normandy landings upon dozens of battered, upright pianos, of hopeful, black-clad refugees being mown down upon cruelly white snow - are perfectly in tune with the melodramatic circumstances of World War II. The cinematography is unforgettable - snow, a recurrent symbol in the movie, has rarely been shot with such emotional resonance.
Though this is a European film with subtitles, it is aimed at the general public, not only at those people who consider themselves a cultural elite. Massive intellect or a knowledge of Hugo's novel are not required.
This is a film with rare moral clarity, unafraid to take the side of Good confronting Evil. Parts are as sickening as Schindler's List; other moments have the heart-lifting innocence of The Sound of Music. Lelouch's masterly combination of sweet and sour blends everything together perfectly.
I loved this film, and would strongly recommend it to anyone who has ever gone to the movies in the hope of being moved.

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