Les Misérables and Realism in Art: Don’t Turn Away

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The day after Christmas, my husband and I went to see the film Les Misérables, the musical masterpiece based on Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century French novel of law and grace, love, chaos, courage, and hope. Eight years ago, my heart was utterly captivated by the stirring Broadway performance, and I had looked forward to this moment ever since—the moment when the story I loved and the music I knew by heart would make its way onto the silver screen together. les_mis_hugh_jackman_thumbnail_648_x_365_0

It was everything I hoped for and more. The pathos of the score met the power of the story in a crashing wave, sweeping into full view the enduring tale of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Javert, and Fantine. I laughed, wept, ached, and loved the characters in a way I never had before. I came away with a deep sense of awe, my heart too full for words.

We had made arrangements to dine with a friend, so after the movie, we met up in a lovely little restaurant near the university. As we greeted each other and sat down, our friend mentioned that he had also seen Les Misérables the day before. We asked him what he thought of the movie. Sitting back in his chair and squaring his shoulders, he replied, “I have a…very mixed opinion.”

“Oh?” said my husband, “why’s that?”

Our friend hesitated and then said, “There were some…woefully inappropriate scenes in that film. There were some parts where…I just didn’t want to see that. I’m telling all my friends to buy the DVD and watch the movie when they have their remote in hand and can fast-forward through those parts.”

Those parts.

fantine seamstress 2I knew which parts he meant—it wasn’t hard to guess. The story of Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway) isn’t a pretty one. A poor seamstress struggling to support a child she conceived out of wedlock, Fantine finds herself out of work and is forced to sell first her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body in order to provide for her little girl. At the mercy of hardened customers and ruthless pimps, Fantine descends into a hell on earth, forgotten and utterly in despair. She screams, “Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead!?”

Meanwhile, Fantine’s child, Cosette, is living in another kind of hell, neglected and abused by the Thenardier family. Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier run an inn for the riff-raff of society, and are themselves the worst sorts of thieves and swindlers. Their theme song, “Master of the House,” gives us a glimpse of their drink-sodden, despicable lives, as they take advantage of everyone around them in their “dog-eat-dog” world. This is not a pretty picture either. cosette-thenardiers

And yet, I felt a part of me shrinking inside as this young man’s words sunk into me…woefully inappropriate? Was it woefully inappropriate to portray scenes like these—lives like these? I heard his words—I just didn’t want to see that—and they troubled me.

The conversation turned to the historical context of Victor Hugo’s book, and I tried to explain Hugo’s passion for social justice, hoping that would shed light on his realistic approach. Victor Hugo lived at a time when France was very much a place of injustice and oppression, still reeling from the effects of half a century of war and upheaval following the French Revolution. He saw the people in the streets, the gutter-folk, the riff-raff, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars. He saw also the indifference to their plight, practiced by the wealthy and the privileged, who never had to wonder where their next bite of bread would come from—who never had to watch their children starve, their daughters sell themselves, or their sons jailed for petty theft.

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Victor Hugo sees these people, and he tells their story, and he says, don’t—turn—away!

Pay attention to this. Don’t close your eyes. You have to see this. You have to see them.

Our friend stirred—a bit uncomfortably?—and said softly, “It’s just very different…than reading it in a book.”

I have heard this so many times. That filming depravity like this is too graphic, that it’s better not to see, not to fill one’s mind with…those things. And I understand people who think this way. Our culture is inundated with portrayals of human sexuality that glorify the unholy, the treacherous, the obscene. All too many movies display scenes of seduction and adultery in ways that feed evil fantasies in our own minds, and treat the human body as if it were a dish for us to feast our lusting eyes upon. Christians are typically averse to watching these films—and rightly so.

Yet Les Misérables is not holding up a twisted picture of human sexuality to be glorified and imitated. Instead, the film displays the depravity of prostitution in a way that brings home to our hearts the terrible anguish of the women involved.

Reading about “these things” in a book is different—it’s less scary, less “defiling”…less moving…less impacting. Books are safer, quieter…the human anguish and shame gets locked up in little black letters, with only the imagination to set them free. And if your imagination is too vivid, you can simply…close the book.

But on the screen, you can’t ignore the reality of human sin. You can’t escape the tragedy that engulfs Fantine, that threatens Cosette, that nearly destroys Valjean. Humanity’s lack of compassion becomes the engine driving the destruction of so many in Les Misérables, and if you look, if you don’t turn away, perhaps you will see yourself.fantine first night

My brother-in-law had this to say about the mindset that keeps some Christians from viewing parts of Les Misérables:

“Yesterday, I read one Christian review, of Les Misérables, telling people to ‘get their popcorn’ during the ‘Lovely Ladies’ song. I would disagree with that. I cried during the end of that song rather than the next. You cannot understand Fantine in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ without ‘Lovely Ladies.’” My brother-in-law, who serves in the Navy, also said that what caused him to break down emotionally during the Lovely Ladies scene was when a naval officer is brought forward to be Fantine’s first customer. “As a member of the navy, it is sad to think that in many ways we keep the sexual slave trade alive internationally. I work with many people who believe that those actions are allowed, since it is overseas.”

Victor Hugo also knew that the issue of human trafficking would be the modern world’s new slavery problem.

“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.” -Victor Hugo

hathaway-dreamed-a-dreamAnd this is why we must look. No matter how bad, how “inappropriate” the scenes of debauchery seemed to my friend, I know prostitution in real life is worse. I know that hundreds of thousands of women and girls today live the horror that Fantine lived…in the dark, all alone. Refusing to look away forces us to see their agony.

For Anne Hathway, playing the role of Fantine evoked a deep sense of compassion and empathy for those trapped in prostitution. “I did a lot of research into the lives of sex workers and particularly sex slaves to learn what the trauma is, because majority of them are traumatized, brutalized and are forced to stay in that life against their will,” she says in an interview with the Phillipine Daily Inquirer. “Normally, when you finish a role, you’re able to go home and leave it behind,” she continues. “There is no leaving this one behind as long as this is a reality in our world. Fantine lives among us and we should all be very ashamed of that.”

This is what I take away from Victor Hugo’s story today: that the poor, the down-trodden, the despised—even the prostitutes and thieves—are worthy of our attention, of our love, of our action. We can choose to turn away, but we must not.

And so I urge you to go see this film. Bear witness to the story of the convict Valjean, the prostitute Fantine, and the orphan Cosette. Let them touch you. Let them move you. Let them open your eyes to the needs of those around you. There are women today like Fantine—trapped, forsaken, despairing. There are children like Cosette—neglected, abused, helpless. There are men like Jean Valjean—bitter, broken, but redeemable.

And there are men like the bishop, who are instruments of the Redeemer.

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3 thoughts on “Les Misérables and Realism in Art: Don’t Turn Away

  1. Many thanks for those thoughts, dear friend. Glad to see you’re blogging again, and looking forward to when this film comes to my old small-town movie theatre. Blessings on both you and Willie!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I agree. My sister and I were talking about how as we watched the film, at first we were a feeling a little disturbed by the prostitution and the tavern and how gross and despicable they were portrayed. Then we realized that we were glad it was gross. Because those things are gross and all too often they are prettied up and glamorized.

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