The Mystery of ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Liberty Leading the People’

David and I went to see ‘Les Miserables’ earlier this week, David more or less on sufferance because he doesn’t much care for musicals but I had decided I wanted to go so  he manfully agreed to come along.

 

We went to the Regal in Redruth for an afternoon performance where we enjoyed a very good light lunch before climbing the stairs to the Screen 7 auditorium. We had gone for the ‘lux’ option as a bit of a treat so, as we settled ourselves on our sofa, we each had a drink on the neat little table at our side. It was just as well. We found we really needed a shot of alcohol to survive the advertisements. Together we mourned the passing of the days when a trip to the cinema always included a ten minute ‘Look at Life’.

 

‘What about the film itself?’ I hear you ask.

 

Well, it isn’t altogether easy to say. David, somewhat grudgingly, pronounced it ‘better than expected’ and I emerged snivelling and emotionally exhausted. The fact is that, despite the sneering criticism of those who see it as ‘pop corn art’ fodder for the masses, it is quite spectacular and, in many ways, a triumph of cinematic art. It has a strong cast, some big production numbers and lots of stirring and heart-rending music – though some of the lyrics, if you really listen to them, teeter on the edge of being trite and predictable.

 

Being petty, one might suggest that some of the characters didn’t age sufficiently over the course of the movie and also that the squalor of the Paris mob was at times overdone. On the other hand, though, the ‘Master of the House’ was a triumph of caricature and the cinematography was excellent with many shots, especially those of the barricades, having the compositional qualities of a painting. (Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ is one that springs to mind.)

 

Having said all that, however, there is something unsettling about this movie. It seems to me that it raises questions for which there are no easy or obvious answers. How are we to account for the extreme popularity of a film about a failed revolution in an age marked by nothing more strongly than the political apathy of the people?  Is it the the ideal of equality and fraternity to which we respond when we are moved by this spectacle or is it, more cynically, the failure of that ideal?

 

There are those, I am sure, who will insist that the politics is incidental. They will argue, no doubt that it is the human story, and most importantly the love story, that so grips the imagination of the audience, an audience probably – and this is an assumption, I admit – dominated be women.

 

And such commentators may be right, up to a point, at least. The  story does come with lashings of sentiment. Not only is our hero young and dashing but he  is also stubborn and headstrong. He wants to lead the people to victory but he is blind to their human potential and, consequently, does not see what is under his nose. Moreover, to add to the theme of vengeance, there is unrequited love, rape and murder, forgiveness and heroic self-sacrifice, not to mention the cheekiest boy actor since Mark Lester in ‘Oliver’.

 

Still, though, there are questions and this one is foremost among them: what message is it that this film carries to the people who so take it to their hearts? Is it a) that ‘the people did not rise up’ and that therefore they cannot be relied upon or b) that, given the widespread notion that we now live in a ‘classless’ society, revolutionary fervour is a thing of the past?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I am not pretending to be in possession of the answers. I am merely flagging up the fact that there is something quite interesting here.  Perhaps what’s going on is akin to that process posited by the art critic, Anne Bermingham, when she suggested that that which is ‘lost’ in actuality may be experienced as ‘restored’ through the operation of the  imaginative faculty. She, of course, was talking about the lost English countryside rather than the spirit of revolution and it may be that the analogy is unsound. On the other hand, it may also be that the ‘common’ people respond to ‘Les Miserables’ because they see in it something they have lost, something they would like to recapture but do not quite see how.

Postscript:

Delacroix’s painting was made to commemorate the 1830 Revolution that toppled Charles X. The French government bought the painting in 1831 for 3,000 francs with the intention of displaying in the throne room of the Palais du Luxemborg as a reminder to the ‘Citizen KIng’, Louis-Philippe of the events of the July Revolution that brought him to power. This plan did come to fruition and the painting was hung for a few months in the palace’s museum gallery before being taken down for its inflammatory political message. After the June Rebellion of 1832, the one portrayed in Victor Hugo’s novel and the film ‘Les Miserables’, it was returned to the artist. It was later described by Champfleury as being ‘hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary’.  After the uprising at the funeral of Lamarque in June, 1832, it was never again openly displayed for fear of setting a bad example. Finally, however, it was exhibited very briefly in 1848 after the restoration of the Republic. It is now in the collection of the Louvre.

(See Wikipedia)

On Servants and Service

Right-wing veteran Tory, Christopher Chope, has become the object of scornful derision because, in an unguarded moment, he referred to to those waitresses and waiters employed in the House of Commons (heavily subsidised) restaurant not as ‘waiters and waitresses’, nor indeed as ‘catering staff’, but rather – most revealingly and against the ‘etiquette’ of the day – simply as ‘servants’. He was, it seems, applauding the fact that there were three employees available to attend to the needs and wants of each and every person who ‘sat down’. The opposition, we are told, hooting with laughter, pounced gleefully on this gift of a gaffe. They, of course, do not have ‘servants’: they know better; rather, they have ‘staff’, ‘hired help’, housekeepers and nannies, or, more prosaically, ‘a woman that does’.

What has struck me most about this incident and the way it has been reported is the way has been the awareness on both sides of the House that the language of servitude is embarrassing. After all, we are supposed to believe, aren’t we, that we are all middle class now? Do we believe it, though? I don’t. And I don’t think they do either.

The truth, I suspect, is that, whether Conservative or Li-Dem or, indeed, (shamefully) Labour, most of our illustrious parliamentarians would look down their noses at me quite as much as their forefathers would have done my grandmother, Matilda Jane Ottley, later Tallett, was was, in fact, a ‘servant’ and, by all accounts, a very fine one, too.

My grandmother began her life in service as a humble kitchen maid. When, eventually, she left it, many years later, she was a happily married woman, mother to her first child, Henry, my father, and a more than competent cook. Later in her life she would do many things – run a fruit and vegetable shop and work both as a cleaner and in munitions – but it was the dozen or so years spent in service in London of which she was most proud.

Yes, my grandmother was proud of her work and she talked to me often about it. She worked ‘below stairs’ in many fine and well-respected households including that of Lord Ellis who refused to use her proper name. (He called her not Matilda but ‘Pada’, though for what reason she never knew.) It was Lord Ellis, however, who tested her honesty by leaving two bright silver half-crowns in the hallway for her to find, afterwards casually mentioning that he had ‘lost’ a small sum of money. Had she happened to find any money or did she know where it might be found?

My grandmother, always respectful, dipped him a curtesy.

‘If you mean, my lord, the five shillings you meant to catch me out with, then the money is just where you left it.’

Lord Ellis, apparently, coloured a little but did not press the point. What my grandmother did not tell him, which he later discovered, was that the coins were now glued fast to the linoleum. The butler told her later that it was only with some difficulty that they prised free with the aid of a knife.

‘He never ever mentioned it,’ she said, smiling as she told me the story, but, in all the years i worked there, he never tried to catch me out again.’

 

Beginnings, Endings and the Mess in Between

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, a little mellow but by no means inebriated, I looked into my partner’s eyes and uttered these fateful words:

‘The last six months have been so difficult, 2013 really has to be a an improvement.’

What cavalier optimism and monstrous folly! I really should have known better. What madness possessed me to tempt fate by making such a statement?

Barely twelve hours had elapsed before I found myself slap bang in the middle of one of those domestic ‘situations’ that simply defy explanation, where, even if people are interested, even if they want to understand it, the whole crisis is beset by twists and turns so intricate and so numerous that any attempt to follow the logic of events is doomed from the start. In the end comes the consciousness your friends and relations are looking at you strangely. They begin to exchange sidelong glances and then to roll their eyes. Finally, they start looking for reasons not to talk to you in the first place. Happy New Year, they beam cheerfully but they turn away in confusion as they take in first your pallid cheeks and then your sunken and red-rimmed eyes.

The exact nature of the crisis I am not free to disclose but that in itself does not matter. The important point is that these recent upheavals, much against my will, have taken me back to a period of my life I had though consigned to the past. Now I have asked myself: Did I do all that I could have done? Did I behave selfishly or with the interests of others at heart?  Am I to blame at all and, if so, how far am I culpable? How much of this present misery should be laid at my door?

All these questions are far from easy to answer: memory is notoriously unreliable and there are few people remaining now whom I might turn for an opinion. Of the main players in the dismal little drama that unfolded two decades ago most are no longer emotionally or geographically available; indeed, unbelievably, as I would have thought then, two or three of them are dead. But what would they say if I were here and I was able to ask them? Would they offer comfort and reassurance, telling me I did everything I could? Or would they look me hard in the eye and tell me that I always had this coming, that I should consider myself luck for getting off so lightly for so long? I do not – perhaps I cannot – know and yet I feel nothing if not guilty. Forgive me, then, my friends and acquaintances. if when you see me this month, my New Year greeting sounds hollow and my smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes. x