“My principles are only those that, before the French Revolution, every well-born person considered sane and normal.” — Julius Evola, Autodifesa, while being tried by the “Italian” democracy
From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step — especially in musicals. Tom Hooper’s cinematic treatment of Les Misérables does not lack for ambition. With sweeping panoramics and extreme facial closeups, seemingly for every song, Hooper leaves nothing to the audience’s imagination. The actors’ vocals were recorded live on set rather than matched up later, the better to capture each crack in the voice or quivering lip. This is actor porn, and will harvest the expected crop of Oscars come February. Each emotional crest is spelled out for us so Les Mis can rape our tear ducts. It works of course. Every woman in the audience was crying, and there were even a few of the sniff-transitioning-to-gruff-cough maneuvers by some of the men.
This is middlebrow mass entertainment and presupposes a certain level of competence. Hugh Jackman (a Broadway veteran) gives an assured performance as Jean Valjean, skillfully combining his work on stage and screen. Manx actress Samantha Barks’s Éponine (another veteran of the musical stage) is a high point, and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is competent and confident, though bland. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine has received the most attention (and she will probably snag an Academy Award), though she conceals her relative lack of vocal prowess with an emotional presentation bordering on hysteria. It’s uncomfortable to watch her on screen, but that’s the point. Amanda Seyfried (another by the numbers liberal) sounds like a B-movie actress from a black and white era with a trilly, high pitched, little girl wail that luckily fits with Cosette’s banal innocence.
The most controversial performance comes from Russell Crowe. Crowe is masterful as an actor, communicating a barely disguised rage mixed with a control always on the edge of splintering. In his first scene, Valjean says he is free and Javert’s angry “No” is worthy of Maximus. Crowe’s take on the character is a naturalistic, soldierly Javert who carries himself like a centurion rather than an obsessed, self-righteous detective. It works and works well, but unfortunately, this is a musical. Poor Russell Crowe, Odin bless him, he just can’t sing like the role demands, 30 Odd foot of Grunts notwithstanding. His growly, rock influenced voice works for some of the dialogue but he simply can’t carry a song like “Stars” the way it deserves.
Javert, of course, is the Villain, a stand-in for an entire repressive system of monarchy, autocracy, tradition, and various other forms of hierarchical horror that we will wash away in a sea of sentimental tears. It would be a problem if the audience sympathized with him, and in the modern world, the way to garner sympathy is through idealized weakness. Even more than in a stage performance, the political implications of the events in the film are spelled out through aesthetics. We open with a huge tricolor floating defeated in the water, an evil indication that “France is once again ruled by a king.” The awe-inspiring opening scene is a huge ship being pulled a team of convicts singing their grief as Javert stares down at them, the embodiment of power. We are being shown the structure of power in miniature, oppressed convicts (all of whom are innocent apparently) held down by uniformed servants of the brutal counter-revolutionary state. Of course, seeing as how Jean Valjean has been in prison for 19 years, most of his time served was under the tricolor so it’s unclear why this matters one way or the other.
Valjean is released under strict parole conditions that prevent him from getting a job. He is redeemed by the kindly Bishop of Digne who gives him food and shelter, and then saves him by lying to the police when Valjean steals, even giving him some silver candlesticks to further the ruse. This act of Christian mercy touches Valjean, and he begins a new life. This is a break in the expected narrative — after all, the Bishop is based on a real person, a kindly cleric who aligned himself against the Revolution. Nonetheless, here Christianity is redefined as quite literally “pawning the silverware” to help individual people.
One is reminded of the terrifying vision of the Church of Rome in Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, where the pope sells all the treasures of the Vatican so they can be thrown into the bottomless pit of world poverty. Victor Hugo himself was given a traditional altar-and-crown Catholic upbringing but later turned against it, favoring progressivism tempered with “God is love” style overtones. Thus, the Bishop’s actions are less an endorsement of the Church than a redefinition of what Christianity should mean in the New France. Rather than a source of culture, aesthetic beauty, spiritual foundation and a support to the organic society under His Most Catholic Majesty, the new Church will sacrifice its means in the name of charity. While the real French Revolution inaugurated the first modern genocide in state history against the Catholics of the Vendée, in Les Mis both heroes (egalitarians) and villains (authorities) will speak in the name of God.
Valjean goes on to become a prosperous factory owner and mayor of a French town. One of his workers, Fantine, is sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette. A fight erupts between her and some of the other female workers, who demand she be fired. The foreman does so because Fantine has rejected his sexual advances. Broken, Fantine is forced to become a prostitute with a heart of gold, selling her teeth, hair, and the rest of her body. The money provides for her daughter, housed by the greedy Thénardiers, who rip off their inn customers, exploit Cosette, and spoil their own daughter Eponine. After a confrontation with an aggressive customer, Fantine is arrested by Javert, but the “mayor” witnesses the event and, realizing her degradation is a result of his own foreman’s actions, obtains her release and takes her to a hospital.
Jean Valjean also rescues a man named Fauchelevent who is being crushed by a cart. The inspector Javert sees this feat of strength, which reminds him of the parole breaking convict Valjean. He reports it, but finds out someone else has been arrested for the crime. Javert confesses his mistake to the “mayor” and demands punishment; Valjean refuses. After his own internal torment, Valjean confesses to the court his identity but leaves to assist Fantine before going to prison. He tells her he will rescue her daughter and keep her safe but just as the now saintly Fantine dies, Javert arrives.
Javert’s ruthless pursuit of Valjean throughout the tale is the centerpiece of the play, but The Confrontation between the two isn’t just a plot point. It’s the conflict between two worldviews and two metapolitical foundations behind them. Valjean begs for a few days to rescue Cosette and warns that he will kill Javert if necessary, claiming he has never done anything wrong. Javert explodes and rages, “Dare you talk to me of crime, and the price you had to pay, every man is born in sin, every man must choose his way. You know nothing of Javert, I was born inside a jail, I was born with scum like you, I am from the gutter too!” Valjean responds that he will do what is necessary to claim Cosette and he will “raise her to the light.” He escapes, claims the girl, and is able to escape to a convent.
Javert of course has seen innumerable con men, criminals, and knaves in his life and has no reason to believe that some man begging for a few days before jail has any intention other than escape. His view of the world, and of God, is grounded in the reality of Original Sin. Man is inherently depraved and given to evil activity. Nor is Javert some privileged aristocrat sneering down at the proles — he has seen it every day of his life. Later, Javert breaks up a dispute on the street, crying, “Another brawl in the square, another stink in the air . . . look upon this fine collection, Crawled from underneath a stone, This swarm of worms and maggots . . .”
Racially, Javert has always been ambiguous. One of the most powerful Javerts on the stage was the black American baritone Norm Lewis. While it’s tempting to roll your eyes at yet another example of “color-blind” PC casting à la Heimdall in Thor, this does fit at least somewhat with the character. The Javert of the book is born to a gypsy mother and a convict father, hardly some fair-haired exemplar of the royalist ruling caste. He has seen the filth of the criminal world and rebelled against it. As far as capturing the essence of the character, the seething Javert of Crowe or Lewis actually fits better than the more entitled, arrogant Javert of Philip Quast.
In contrast, Jean Valjean represents a world that prizes forgiveness over justice, rights over honor. After all, he only “stole a loaf of bread,” and seemingly every other character is the book is innocent. His fallen state is not a product of his own depravity, but society’s injustice. As Victor Hugo laid out in his own will, the poor (Les Misérables) are the true moral center of society, needing only to be liberated from an oppressive social structure.
The only truly despicable characters in the story are the grasping Thénardiers, who mock the “law abiding folk” and their Christian God, con everyone they can out of every last sou, and generally serve as parasites. While Hugo at least understands the reactionary tendencies of Javert and preaches the Christian idealism of Valjean and the egalitarianism of the revolutionary students, he has only contempt for the money-grubbing of Economic Man. Among the chief sins of the Thénardiers are their boast that whatever is happening with the barricades and the revolution, they will always be there, always survive, and always profit. I should note that the Thénardiers are portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen and self-described “Jewish Catholic” Helena Bonham Carter.
Jean Valjean and the rescued Cosette live peacefully for years as the girl matures into a beautiful woman. Meanwhile, the streets of Paris are ripe for Revolution once again. “Do You Hear the People Sing” is a musical version of the Whig version of history, as the masses cry, “Do you hear the people sing, Singing the songs of angry men, It is the music of a people, Who will not be slaves again.” The film treats us to the righteous fury of the poor screaming out “Death to the King!” and besieging the carriages of the wealthy. Among the poor are a few Negroes, presumably to help modern American audiences tell which side they are supposed to root for.
The Society of the ABC (the ABC a French pun meaning “oppressed”), a revolutionary student group, prepares for action when General Lemarque (“the people’s man”) dies. One of the members is Marius, a wealthy student who has turned his back on privilege to dedicate himself to the Revolution. However, he encounters Cosette and is thunderstruck. The Society is led by Enjorlas, a student perfectly dedicated to the Revolution, who mocks Marius’s petty interest in romance. In “Red and Black” the stakes are clear — “Red — the blood of angry men! Black — the dark of ages past! Red — a world about to dawn! Black — the night that ends at last!” Marius is ultimately won over, and the united Society prepares to wage war against the nation’s own past.
However, before that is done, Éponine leads Marius to Cosette’s house, in spite of her own love for him. She even prevents her father’s gang from robbing the house. However, the noise makes Valjean think Javert has finally come for him. He tells Cosette they must leave and prepares to flee the country. The students ready for Revolution and a world where “every man will be a king” while Javert schemes to nip the revolution in the bud.
The next day, Javert infiltrates the revolutionaries as a spy but is exposed by Gavroche, a young street urchin. He is detained. Éponine delivers a letter to Cosette from Marius but Valjean intercepts and reads it, learning of their relationship. He hurries to the barricade to meet this Marius. He saves Enjorlas at the barricade and asks to shoot Javert to get him away from the students. Amazingly, he lets him go. Javert swears he will not relent even in the face of this mercy. Éponine is shot and killed, sacrificing herself for the boy she loves, even though he doesn’t love her back. Unlike the bland Cosette, Éponine suffers a genuinely tragic fate.
While the barricade holds for the night, it’s clear that the revolution is doomed. The next day, the attack comes. Gavorche is shot dead, the students massacred. Valjean manages to seize an unconscious Marius and drag him into the sewers. Enjorlas survives but is executed, red flags flowing over his heroic corpse as the bullets hit.
In the sewers, Valjean is confronted by Javert. Once again, Valjean pleas for a brief respite, so Marius can receive medical care. Javert warns he will shoot, but cannot. Valjean escapes.
Javert’s soliloquy and suicide is the most detailed presentation of his worldview. He cannot understand why Valjean spared him — rather than mercy, he sees it as an insult. In his view, it is Valjean’s “right” to kill him — as an outlaw, he lives by force, and Javert is the law. It is only natural that there be conflict and violence. Now, Valjean has a superior moral claim over him precisely because he relinquishes his right to vengeance. It is the victory of slave morality, pity and compassion over justice and law.
The movie provides additional context to Javert’s actions that the stage performance lacks. Javert walks the streets after the slaughter of the revolutionaries, staring at the dead bodies. In an ad-lib, Crowe’s Javert even pins his medal on the slain child Gavorche. This suggests that Javert is actually questioning his moral foundation. However, the song states that his disillusionment and eventual suicide doesn’t come from moral confusion, but defiance. “I am the law, and the law is not mocked. I’ll spit his pity, right back in his face.”
Earlier, when Javert is given to Valjean by the revolutionaries, he mutters, “The law is inside out, the world is upside down.” Being spared is even worse. It isn’t just a reversal of power and position, but of morality. Killing the man who spared him is somehow unjust. In an honor-based society, it is proper to kill your enemy. In a rights-based society, it is the victim who is superior to the victor, “People still fall out, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it spoileth their stomachs,” as it says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Even as Javert confronts Valjean, the women of Paris (who could not be bothered to help during the struggle) mourn the heroes of the revolution now that they are fallen. The moral foundation of the law is undermined. Thus, Javert commits suicide for “there is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert.” The movie even treats us to an unnecessary loud crack as the lawman’s spine is severed.
Marius mourns his fallen comrades but marries and begins a new life with Cosette. It is revealed by Thénardier in the midst of a con that Valjean was the one who saved Marius. The new married couple hurries to the dying Valjean’s side to thank him. Valjean dies and is welcomed into heaven by none other than Fantine. All those who fell at the barricades are reunited in the afterlife, pictured as one giant Paris Commune with tricolors and red flags waving, crying “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Only Javert is absent. We began with the Revolution in retreat, in the end, heaven itself has fallen to the Tricolor. God Himself is subverted. Decades ago, when National Review employed serious conservative writers, the late Joseph Sobran wrote, “The ultimate Progressive categories are not heaven and hell, or good and evil, or order and chaos but Future and Past.”
Les Misérables is the most attractive portrayal of the narrative that informs all liberal (classical or otherwise) journalism, scholarship, and activism. The past is dark, retrograde, “the night of ages past.” Poverty exists because the poor are oppressed by kings, people are naturally good and perfectible, and if we just remove those the dead hand of tradition, we can advance to utopia. On its own terms, the film succeeds. The heroism of Jean Valjean, the suffering of Fantine, the nobility of Enjorlas and the other revolutionaries (which even Crowe’s Javert salutes) are undeniable. But what are we really celebrating here? Once a traditional society is destroyed, a man like Javert has no place and must die, a death the film seems to actually celebrate. Red is not just the blood of angry men, but the blood of innocent men spilled eagerly from egalitarian revolutionaries from China to the Ukraine. Nonetheless, the movie tells us that the youthful idealism of egalitarians is not just noble but holy, even perfect. The soldiers who die putting down the revolt and the past memories of guillotine, Terror, and Vendée are skipped over merrily.
Les Misérables isn’t just a story — it’s a masterpiece of metapolitical propaganda. It reinforces the view of history where idealism, youth, and nobility are solely the province of the egalitarian Left. No failure or slaughter is useless because the “true” revolution exists as a kind of Platonic “form” to be striven for endlessly, a future both unreachable and inevitable. Javert thought his was “the way of the Lord” but it turns out Heaven is simply a Paris Commune that never ends. All of the preferred victim classes are laid out for us — noble criminals superior to lawmen, innocent whores and single mothers more virtuous than evil lust-crazed men, and lefty student revolutionaries more enlightened than ordinary citizens who’d rather sleep than shoot at soldiers from a barricade. As for those reactionaries that resist, well, the surround sound doesn’t just let us “Hear the People Sing” but listen to the crack of the reactionaries’ spines.
Men are moved to action not by reason, but by myth. Les Misérables is a beautifully shot film, an emotionally powerful musical, and sinisterly effective portrayal of the progressive myth that underlies our entire rotting civilization.