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.


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)


2 thoughts on “The Mystery of ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Liberty Leading the People’

  1. Pingback: The Mystery of ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Liberty Leading the People’ « Abigail Elizabeth Wyatt

  2. ‘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’s nothing like failed ideals. We see our own losses and can cry for them in a larger context.

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