Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: Les Misérables (1934)

Harry Baur as Valjean in Raymond Bernard's masterpiece.

Directed by Raymond Bernard
Produced by Raymond Borderie
Written by Raymond Bernard and André Lang; Victor Hugo (novel)
Starring Harry Baur, Charles Vanel, Florelle, Charles Dullin, Josseline Gaël and Orane Demazis


Bernard's nearly 5-hour epic is divided into three parts: "Tempest in a Skull", "The Thenadiers", and "Freedom, dear Freedom". The wealth of material lends itself perfectly to the director's vision of a reformed criminal and a rigid inspector. Jean Valjean (Baur) serves an extended prison sentence of 19 years, and he is released with the burden of being of a convict in search of work. After breaking his parole, he is able to turn his life around, and he becomes a wealthy mayor, even adopting a dying prostitute's (Florelle) daughter (Gaël). In the midst of this is Inspector Javert (Vanel), who is determined to track down Valjean. Years pass, and a student revolution brings this story to its legendary climax, with Valjean and Javert crossing paths for the last time.

Often cited as the most faithful adaptation of Hugo's novel, this is an ambitious masterpiece of technique. If features outstanding production design, and the cinematography is very effective. Cinematographer Jules Kruger (of Napoleon fame) frequently uses chiaroscuro lighting and Dutch angles. For the time period, the performances are strong by the entire cast. Baur is an excellent choice as Valjean, providing the character his strength and humility. Vanel brings out the upright, unflinching nature of Javert. The rest of the cast also performs well, especially Florelle as the ill-fated Fantine and Dullin as the scheming Thenadier. While it might be overlooked by many, the film is generally regarded as one of the greatest pieces of French cinema, and the claim is justified. It is a triumph in epic, cinematic storytelling, just begging to be rediscovered by cinema lovers and fans of Hugo's classic novel.

Oscar Tally: None


  1. I wanted to love this more than I did. Watching this only confirmed to me that this story needs to be reigned in for the big screen and it needs real connective tissue to make it all feel whole. I felt that so many points were merely brushed here, never really dug up. I actually wrote in my review (on Amazon) that this needed songs! The musical ties up all the loose ends through music, explaining deeper the things that the time allotted won't allow. Five hours is a long time, but Hugo's book is so vast that it doesn't feel like enough without something to explain it in better detail. While I actually LOVED the performances, and felt that Vanel was the MVP, I felt that Javert's finale needed more depth. It never felt as crushing as it needed to be, and it also made me respect Crowe's marvelous performance even more.

    All in all, I gave this a B+ and wholly agree on the production values.

    1. Yeah, I can see that, especially with Javert. His finale definitely could've been better, but I loved the film on the whole. Of course, it might not be possible to bring the complete depth of the novel to the big screen. Still, I think this is a fine attempt. Glad you liked it overall.