A 19th century Les Misérables

25th April 2017

To the Barbican on Sunday for a screening of Henri Fescourt’s glorious Les Misérables, shot in France in 1925-26, and only recently restored with breath-taking tinted and toned visuals. It now runs at its full length, which is 6 hours and then some. Special thanks for this labour of love are due to the CNC Laboratory Paris in collaboration with Pathé and The Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation.

Special thanks, and deep admiration, needs also to be shown to Neil Brand, who heroically and brilliantly accompanied the film throughout. His rich, romantic piano score balanced drama with dimuendo and the sentimental with the stirring. We started on our journey back to early 19th France at 2pm and with a couple of coffee breaks and an hour for a snatched pizza emerged happy (we had seen and heard something wonderful), sad (Jean Valjean, in whose company we had been pretty much throughout, was dead) and morally cleansed (this is Victor Hugo, mes amis).

I sketched some of the background to the film and the screening in a post last week, and on his blog Paul Joyce has also enthused about Sunday’s event. The four parts of the film are very cleverly plotted, incorporating (as far my comparatively limited knowledge of the novel allows me to judge) all of the major events and characters, and many of the minor ones too. It’s smartly paced, so that you feel the narrative drawing you on constantly. Many of the performances are indeed really fine, and especially Gabriel Gabrio as Valjean and Sandra Milovanoff (above) as both Fantine and her daughter Cosette. But the aspect that I want to highlight is how for the most part, and especially in the first hours, the film’s images are so convincing that I might have believed that they had been shot in the early 19th century.

A good part of the drama takes place in interiors that were clearly filmed in a studio, as was the climactic battle on the barricade (the action spans 1815 to the 1832 uprising in Paris). But before we reach the capital we have spent a good deal of time in la France profonde, the “deep France” of provincial towns and agriculture. And in 1925 this France would appear to have hardly changed at all from a century earlier.

The fields, the country roads and village streets have a quality that, hard as it is to define, means that you know the prettifying touch of an art director has come nowhere near. The same goes for the rough and raw textures of the walls of farmyard buildings and modest dwellings. This feels like the France that, slightly later, in the 1850s and ’60s, was photographed by Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Gustave Le Grey and the Bisson brothers. Les Misérables has a concrete sense of the past that is beyond almost all modern costume dramas.

The other aspect of Les Misérables that convinces you that it was shot nearly two hundred years back is, as Luke McKernan and I expressed to each other simultaneously, the faces. Leaving aside the main roles, every bit part and extra looks quite extraordinary – and quite unlike someone that you might see in a contemporary classic serial like, say, Versailles. These are people from another age, marked in a manner that is no more, with physiognomies from artworks by Courbet, Millet or Van Gogh.

In the court scene in Part 2, for example, when Valjean reveals that he has been a convict, every judge and official, along with every audience member in a packed room, has a nose or a hairstyle or a single eye or a pair of ears or an oddly shaped chin that is truly out of the past. So, too, with all of the inn customers and villagers, including a woman whose close-up can have been on screen for perhaps two, maybe three seconds. One of her eyes was screwed shut, and with the other, set in her lined, troubled face, she stared at us today from what felt like two centuries ago.

Remarkable, as was Sunday’s experience overall. Bravo messieurs Hugo, Fescourt and Brand.

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