As you know I work in processing manuscripts for publishing, and writing articles for freelance work. Essentially what this means is that workflow, for me, is like pop-up ads on your technologically stupid and gullible grandmother's computer. Every time you get stuff settled down and running, bing bing bing
there go another twenty windows for things you have to close out of before they infect everything.
One day I'll figure out a magic system to ride the top of the wave and get everything done and still have time for fun writing. (And then I will have neglected a crucial element that becomes a total shitshow, and repeat.)
So I saw Les Mis the movie this weekend with liveonthesun
and I really liked a lot about it. Of course, the music is, in general, on a path directly to my feelings, so that can't be helped, and the rest of it was certainly beautiful. I've only ever seen selections from the musical performed on stage, as well as reading the book and listening to a dramatized audiobook, so I have no experience of the entire musical put together to compare the movie with, but eh, I'd rather evaluate it as a film on its own merits anyway, because adaptation techniques is a completely different piece of meta and I am in no way able to start talking about that.
I seem to remember a lot more about Valjean and Javert's dualities and characters, plotwise, and less about the magical sparkly love of Marius and Cosette (but I hate the B-plot love stories of idiots anyway, w/e), but it's been awhile since the book, and I really don't know if the concerns of the book fully translate to the musical anyway or if it's cooler to skip ahead to making furniture barricades.
(Ngl, I know the futility of the barricades was explicitly discussed/sung about as a theme, but DAMN that could have been a much more effective revolt, good lord, revolutionaries, spend less time singing and more time planning how to properly stock supplies for behind the barricade you need to build better.)
But really. I have some issues about the directorial and cinematography choices. Things that were clearly done as deliberate decisions to create an atmosphere and style and focus for the film. And I think that going from stage to film gives you a lot of opportunity to explore things, USING GOOD CINEMATOGRAPHY, that you don't have room to explore on a stage set where you are sitting still to look at it from a fixed distance and angle. I don't want a translation or transposition of a stage musical in a movie: I want an adaptation
, that takes film elements of lenses, angles, shots, editing, lighting, and uses them to show without words or explanation great depths of nuance that can't be utilized in any other medium.
It seemed like the entire movie was made up of close-ups (with the background HEAVILY out of focus) and wide-angle shots to establish how big France (geographically, or in the case of the initial boat-pulling scene or the funeral procession scene, socially) was in some way. Some of those wider shots were canted/Dutch angles, for no discernible reason (like, those are to tell you something's wrong and put you in suspense; Valjean coming clean about his identity to Marius BARELY fits the theme enough to demonstrate it with a Dutch angle).
And with the close-ups, the effect of these disembodied singing heads, it seemed to me, not only emotionally disconnected the characters from each other, but also created a completely different performance atmosphere for the musical than I was expecting. It did not show the world of Les Miserables, or the physical ways characters connected to each other, as much as it could have. If I were to compare it to something, it would be a staged reading of a play, where all the actors are using the right voices to read their lines, but they aren't actually acting with each other. They're reading. Your focus moves from one person in a spotlight to another person in a spotlight, without the physicality of performance.
One scene in particular that stuck out to me was where Marius
has PTSD/survivors' guilt everywhere
is up in the room where he and the other student revolutionaries drank and planned. There had actually been a few shots with space to breathe in that room, earlier in the film, when people were plotting and drinking and Marius was contemplating choosing the revolution or Cosette. All the other characters were very present there. When Marius returns there, the only survivor, the gaping emptiness
of that room, where everyone is so clearly present by their absence, would have been an excellent thing to focus on in shots. Let Marius sing, but instead of his freckled face, aim the camera at the chair where his friend had sat. Have him touch the table where Enjolras had been pointing at the map. Have him look at a chair and then out the window, because there was an item of furniture that wasn't shielding them on the barricade. Turn up the bright contrast of the light to an almost unbearable degree, because the world going on in the face of loss and grief should be impossible. USE WHAT IS IN THE FRAME, WHAT WE CALL MISE-EN-SCENE, TO ILLUSTRATE WHAT MARIUS IS SINGING ABOUT.
Because that's what it comes down to. There are a lot of places where the songs tug at my heart. But when I looked for more than just words of characters explaining things, I did not see the cinematography agreeing with what the character said and illustrating it in a way that SHOWED me why I was feeling what I was reacting to.
Admittedly, I had really high hopes going in, and I did enjoy the movie a great deal. But at the end of the day (hah, got it stuck in your head) I want to see more from a film musical of Les Mis than an on-set performance of the soundtrack clearly showing each singer's solos.
And I also wanted more for Valjean's personal heaven than a still-starved Fantine leading him to a larger and better-constructed barricade. Goddammit, wasn't that one of the things dying was supposed to get him AWAY from? I mean, I don't know how else to plausibly set up the final number, but still, fuck, that sucks Valjean.
(Also: I know this probably isn't the musical, but I also would have been happy with a movie about Javert and Valjean, with songs and very sparse on dialogue otherwise, using careful lighting and angles and use of the cross symbolism, to show how they are two sides of the same coin, how Valjean fears being caught by the law and Javert fears being caught by anything but the law, and how each places their belief in a very strong justice-based faith, but for one of them it is all about rules and consequences, and for another it's all about growth and grace, and if either lets go of their death grip on that faith then they will truly lose themselves. This shoddy revolt and the two idiots in love really got in the way of that movie.)ohvienna
linked me to this article on why the cinematography is so sad in this movie
and it has a lot more detail about film theory basics, which if you did not spent a large amount of your college years sitting around discussing things like film angles is kinda really cool and helpful and the movie illustrates a lot of other aspects of film, such as attempted Stanley Kubrick tributes, in ways that I hadn't even considered. I recommend it!