A disclaimer: I’m the opposite of a film buff. I do not read The New Yorker. I think I saw five movies in 2012. I’m that Angeleno who smirks when friends visit and want to see the Walk of Fame. Etc.
But I did see Les Miserables tonight, and I responded to it (read: cried). I cheered aloud for the songs of angry men. My fists clenched when Jean Valjean stormed into that trial and claimed “24601″ for his own. I’m streaming the soundtrack now. I really don’t care that New Yorker film critic David Denby and I reacted differently–we’re not interested in the same things. But I reject his claim that “saints do not make interesting heroes.”
Here’s an excerpt from that piece (and the full one):
Is it sacrilege to point out that the Victor Hugo novel, stripped of its social detail and reduced to its melodramatic elements, no longer makes much sense? That the story doesn’t connect to our world (which may well be the reason for the show’s popularity)? Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another, while Javert pursues him all over France… Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? Saints do not make interesting heroes.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a film featuring a “saint.” Let’s not equivocate: Jean Valjean is a zealot. He became one after a monsignor offered him a meal (spoiler: then Valjean tried to steal his silver, and then the priest saved Valjean from arrest. Then, not only did the priest forgive his guest, but gave him these two ornate candlesticks that Valjean carried for 25 years. Finally, he knelt before the tabernacle and shouted at God, like Pres. Bartlett in that fabulous episode of The West Wing, and that was that.) Valjean embodies self-sacrifice, mercy and patience–of course he’s unrealistic. I didn’t know Les Mis when I bought my ticket, and for most of the movie, I was waiting for Valjean to do something, anything, imperfect. In any other story, surely he’d have tried to accost Cosette or hurt Helena Bonham Carter, right? Was anyone else waiting for that?
But he didn’t. I think that’s the point. We’re still in a romantic era: Usually our heroes fall onscreen, and we see slight redemption and continued personal struggle, not outright commitments to mercy. We see poverty and prison becoming masters of their victims, who are saved by benevolence or not at all. Valjean is a History Channel model prisoner, for goodness’ sake–he reintegrates into society marvelously–so why did I want to make him an antagonist? I determined that he could not be a saint. No man could forgive such a wholly unjust social structure. Poverty and violence are vicious cycles; that’s what I’ve been taught since elementary school. He had to stumble. Surely he’d become brooding and introspective and jealous, at least. No such luck, though. Valjean didn’t even surrender to vanity, the most forgivable heroic vice.
Les Mis is important because it features such devotion so centrally. The romantic plotline is one of the story’s weakest–frankly, compared to surrounding events, it’s frivolous. Valjean’s France was an undeniable site of class warfare, and the banner-waving rebels are fighting profound disenfranchisement, not killing time before college. This isn’t Shawshank Redemption, either; the opening scene’s prisoners are guilty but deeply sympathetic. Valjean himself is a convert, a deeply committed Christian practicing gritty social justice.
I think we’re far more used to Christian hypocrites than Christian saints, though. We expect hypocrisy from fundamentalists–the Westboro Baptist Church, for one, and Javert. But because social justice groups are so much more accessible (think building houses and feeding the homeless), it’s easy to ignore individual religiosity. We rarely discuss social justice in the context of devotion. We lose Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and Gregory Boyle to Javert; we lose conversations about poverty, prejudice and revolution to politicization and legalism. Maybe I can’t name films about saints because I forget that “zealot” is not inherently pejorative.
This point was hardly Mr. Denby’s critique, I know. But I think the reason Hugo’s story “no longer makes much sense” is that we’ve stopped believing in Jean Valjean. Naively, maybe, I reject Mr. Denby’s suggestion that “the rest of us” couldn’t respond the way the hero did. Les Mis believes that sincerity, devotion and the pursuit of justice aren’t mutually exclusive. That line that’s all over Facebook–”to love another person is to see the face of God”–is about sacrifice, not romance. This is one film where the self-denying love story trumps its self-effacing one. (Twice.) I found that fascinating.
And instead of romantic, “interesting,” self-absorbed heroes, Mr. Denby, I for one am interested in saints.