Director/Coscreenwriter: Raymond Bernard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” — Roger Ebert
If there ever was a film that perfectly exemplified Roger Ebert’s opinion for me, it is the 1934 French adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In the days after I finished watching this underexposed masterpiece by an inexplicably obscure director, and I kept flashing to random scenes and faces at odd moments. It is not that any particular scene grabbed me, though there are some fine set-pieces in the film, it is the entire experience that captured me. I didn’t want to rewatch it, I wanted it to continue. I literally longed for it to be part of my life.
The pull of this sweeping, period melodrama has proven irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike, set as it is during the turbulent 19th century in France when the republic forged by revolution in 1789 was ruled off and on by “citizen” kings who, along with the aristocratic elite, had an eye toward the permanent restoration of the absolute power of the monarchy. There have been at least 25 filmed versions of Hugo’s 530,982-word tome, spanning from a Lumière short in 1897 to 2012’s operatic extravaganza under the direction of Oscar winner Tom Hooper.
Les Misérables can be slanted almost any way a filmmaker or studio wants. Hollywood productions seem to favor a romantic line, with Jean Valjean more of a matinee idol, such as in the 1952 version with Michael Rennie as Valjean. In France, Victor Hugo is a monumental historical figure, cultural influence, and chronicler of decisive moments in French history. Thus, French adaptations of his works lean toward noble ideals and the public stage. Raymond Bernard, a highly regarded director in France who is nearly unknown outside his native land, made this 281-minute film in three discrete parts that I viewed in two sittings; even at this length, the film sticks largely with the core story of convict Jean Valjean from his final days in prison to the end of his life.
Bernard, a Jew and son and brother of two French playwrights, Tristan Bernard and Jean-Jacques Bernard, cut his teeth in silent films and went into hiding during World War II. His father was sent to a deportation camp during the war; though released due to public outcry, the rigors of his imprisonment shortened his life. The experiences of Père Bernard and Jean Valjean in this regard are ironically similar.
The film strikes an almost miraculous balance of the politics and rebellious fervor, social malaise and sacrifice, rags-to-riches drama and romance Hugo offered by helping us identify personally with each of the characters through a considered dramatization of their stories. Key to Bernard’s film is his Jean Valjean, the craggy and robust character actor Harry Baur, naturally built to exhibit the physical strength we see in the first scene that enables Police Inspector Javert (played here by the great Charles Vanel) to find him every time Valjean changes locations and identities. Veracity in this detail is crucial to accepting the cat-and-mouse pursuit that forms the through line on which the secondary stories are hung, and in my opinion, Baur is the definitive Valjean in this regard.
However, Baur brings much more to the role than physical stature. He grasps Valjean’s native wit and survival instinct, and understands Hugo’s critique of the temptation to lose touch with society’s underclass as one rises in the world. When Valjean, now the mayor of a small town, learns that his suspicious police inspector (Javert, of course) is off to a trial where the defendant has been identified as his bail-jumping quarry, Valjean rides to the defendant’s rescue, but not before considering an actual fork in the road that could lead him off the path of truth and justice.
Valjean keeps a 40-sous coin he stole from a young man to remind him of the base human being he became during his imprisonment, but he is not immune to being blinded by the light. When he fails to recognize Thénardier (Charles Dullin), little Cosette’s (Gaby Triquet) cruel guardian when she was a child, who has fallen as low as Valjean has risen, he sets himself up to become a crime victim and barely escapes murder, as well as rearrest by Javert. The undercurrent throughout Baur’s touching, understated performance is the desire to be free, of particular importance to the French, but also a universal imperative that has seen this tale resonate through the ages in many lands.
Valjean’s encounter with Monseigneur Myriel (Henry Krauss) is particularly satisfying in this version because Bernard offers it with simplicity, brevity, and without necessarily endorsing religious conversion as the key to reform and salvation. The scene serves to highlight the inhuman conditions convicts endured by emphasizing the wonder Valjean experiences at being shown common courtesies and having a real bed to sleep in; the man who had the decency to steal a loaf of bread for his starving nieces and nephews starts to emerge and comes to full bloom in short order.
Baur is particularly affecting when he goes to Thénardier’s inn to settle Fantine’s (Florelle) debts for Cosette’s care and agrees to whatever the greedy Thénardiers ask without question or hesitation; when it appears from their increasing demands that they will never let Cosette go, he decides on a fair price, pays it, and simply takes her hand and leads her away. The scene plays particularly well today as a reminder that those for whom no amount of money is enough—I am reminded of a comment Bill Gates made about encyclopedia companies that didn’t aggressively capture the electronic market: “Oh, they have finite greed.”—can never behave in a truly human manner and that one simply must part company with them.
Fantine is treated in a more fully realized fashion here, with her story expanded in ways that while not escaping melodramatic excess completely, relieve her of the burden of being nothing more than a pathetic victim. We see her while still employed in Valjean’s bead factory, daydreaming, working slowly, and incurring the envy of her boss (Yvonne Mea) because of her beauty.
Thus, we see Fantine as a vain, careless woman whose character only comes to the forefront when it comes to her daughter Cosette. The horror of watching Fantine have her teeth pulled in the 2012 version becomes something almost comic in this film, as a scene in which her future of selling her hair and teeth is foretold moves to a full-face view of Fantine with a gap where her front teeth used to be. The image has an odd quality of ridicule about it, like locking a petty criminal into stocks in a public square, thus commenting on the costs of foolish vanity. Nonetheless, Fantine’s story contains an appropriate amount of sadness as she falls fatally ill and dies without seeing her daughter again.
The final scenes in Paris that see all of the major players converge in street warfare builds with tension. The ill fortune and ill will of the Thénardiers collide with Valjean’s charitable instincts and a grown-up Cosette’s (Josseline Gaël) love affair with Marius Pontmercy (Jean Servais), an aristocrat turned revolutionary, animates the final reckoning between Valjean and Javert. Cosette is little more than a sketch as a young woman, a far cry from the overburdened little girl whose delight in a street carnival, a lively scene of French village life that particularly distinguishes this version, reveals a spirit that she has wisely hidden from her taskmasters. Nonetheless, the grown-up Cosette’s ardor for Marius and affection for Valjean are palpable, with Valjean realizing from his own, sad experiences that the spirit he saved so many years ago could be broken if Marius is killed.
Among the most vivid characters in this part of the tale are Marius’ royalist uncle Gillenormand (Max Dearly), who provides comic delight in denouncing and worrying about his nephew in the same breath, and the Thénardiers’ youngest child Gavroche, played by Émile Genevois. Genevois returns this character to the cunning, adventurous boy whose defiance of the king’s soldiers in the final battle has nothing to do with becoming a martyr, as in the 2012 version, and everything to do with keeping hope of victory alive. He scurries in the dark collecting ammunition from fallen soldiers as he sings, in beautiful voice, in mockery; it is only a matter of time before an annoyed fusilier’s aim finally finds its target, but not before Gavroche has recovered 400 rounds for the cause.
With chaos all around and the rebellion doomed, Javert’s private hunt for Valjean, who is carrying a wounded Marius through the Paris sewers, forms a particularly tense scene that foreshadows Valjean’s capture and Javert’s victory. Watching the aged and injured Valjean, still strong but having more difficulty carrying the unconscious Marius, makes us fear that French law will win out over natural law. When Javert is waiting for the pair at one of only two gateways out of the sewers, all hope is lost. Javert agrees to have Marius taken by coach to Gillenormand’s mansion, after which he will take Valjean into custody. But it is Javert who realizes that he has been in a prison, locked away from human intercourse by the rigidity of the law.
He frees himself in a way that will keep him out of the grasp of the pitiless authorities, but his suicide, like everything else in this film, is dealt with economically with a shot of circular ripples radiating from a central point in the Seine River. Valjean has the last word as he lies dying, wishing not to be remembered by anyone but Cosette, finally becoming the symbol for the French spirit Hugo always intended.
Location shooting in Paris during the final third of the film prefigures Neorealism and deepens the sense of history with which the French live and identify. In addition, German Expressionism must have been an influence on Bernard. The skewed camera angles, cubist-inspired sets, and deep shadows that give expressionist films their menacing power work well in this story of crime and punishment set against the backdrop of violent history.
To help examine Raymond Bernard’s place in cinematic history, The Criterion Collection has issued a set in its Eclipse series that contains this film and Wooden Crosses (1932). The Criterion word on the set:
One of the greatest and least-known directors of all time, Raymond Bernard helped shape French cinema, at the dawn of the sound era, into a truly formidable industry. Typical of films from this period, Bernard’s dazzling dramas painted intimate melodrama on epic-scale canvases. These two masterpieces—the wrenching World War I tragedy WOODEN CROSSES and a mammoth, nearly five-hour LES MISÉRABLES, widely considered the greatest film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel—exemplify the formal and narrative brilliance of an unjustly overshadowed cinematic trailblazer.