I went to see Les Misérables earlier this week and, I have to say, I found it smug, superficial, and sensationalist. Admittedly, I’m about as far as a person can possibly get from the target audience for an historical musical, let alone a moralistic, paternalistic faux-realist treatise on the glory of revolution and the transformative power of love and religion, but even so, it was pretty terrible.
Stacy Wolf has already pointed out the creeping misogyny of Les Mis, so I won’t linger on that, except to say: it’s really misogynistic. When the female characters in an 150-year-old novel have more agency than the female characters in a contemporary adaptation, there’s a problem, people.
But for me, the bigger problem with Les Mis is the way it sensationalizes history to the point of trivializing it. Obviously, there’s no topic that should be out of bounds to literature — certainly one can and should write about revolution, prostitution, and the moral struggles of the poor. But a musical? Really? ‘Cause there’s nothing I love more than a sentimental solo about a woman being coerced into prostitution.
Essentially, Les Mis is looking back at the pain and suffering of its characters and licking its chops. It’s nothing short of vulgar. Oh, look how picturesque the poor consumptive prostitutes are! The costumes are so lavish! Doesn’t the blood of these dead adolescent revolutionaries match their fallen flag nicely? The poster is a perfect example — dirty, down-trodden Cosette is an object of our pity, but her porcelain perfect skin shines from within, reassuring us that there’s nothing too ugly or unpleasant in the world, not really. We enjoy feeling sorry for her because it makes us feel that, like Jean Valjean who nobly lifts her from poverty, we are, at heart, decent and good. That sort of puerile, prurient fascination with suffering for the sake of self-aggrandizement is, simply put, vile.
All of this might be more palatable if the intention were to raise awareness about social issues or to explore the complex nature of some historical circumstances (though there’s hardly a need to legitimize fiction through ideology). It might be excusable if Les Mis had anything to do with real life. I say this as a committed fantasist, who absolutely does not believe that realism is the only path to truth. But while verisimilitude is optional, honesty isn’t, and Les Mis most decidedly is not that. In fact, I would say it determinedly avoids any kind of honesty. The film is so stuffed with characters and subplots that no one but Jean Valjean is meaningfully developed even in the slightest. Instead, we get a lot of broad strokes about big themes — God, duty, love, blah, blah, blah. But there’s nothing to support it, no humanity grounding all that bombast. If you’re going to try to tell me that “to love another person is to see the face of God,” you’d better earn it. Or better yet, save it for someone who cares, because quite frankly that kind of smarmy, sentimental nonsense makes me want to hurl.
That said, it wasn’t all bad. The film was certainly pretty. And Anne Hathaway was great, as were Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers. But even Anne Hathaway pouring her heart out couldn’t prevent Les Mis from sinking to its level as a self-congratulatory piece of middle-brow Oscar bait.