Think With Me: Dazzling and Distracting Cinematography in LES MISERABLES
17 February 2013
The latest Les Miserables film has its roots in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same title, but, primarily is a version of the 1980’s musical adaptation of Hugo’s work. Briefly, Les Miserables follows the adult life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), beginning with his release from prison in early 19th century France. The terms of his release require him to report for parole, but Valjean decides the only way to leave his crippling past behind is to create a new identify for himself, therefore violating his parole. For years he gets away with this violation, and he successfully creates a new and prosperous identity for himself as a respected businessman. However, one day Javert (Russell Crowe), an officer from Valjean past, reenters his life and brings with him the threat of returning to prison. At this exact time, one of Valjean’s former employees dies, and, on her deathbed, Valjean promises to raise this woman’s daughter, Cossette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), as his own. Therefore, as Valjean begins a life on the run from the law he must also care for the young Cossette, as well as shield her knowing of his former identity as a convicted felon. As Cossette grows older, political tensions in France increase, and Cossette falls in love with a revolutionist, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Determined to always protect Cossette and the ones she loves, Valjean fights alongside Marius to keep him safe, even though that means jeopardizing his safety and his identity as a wanted criminal. As tensions mount, battle lines are drawn, and lives are taken, the aging Valjean inevitably comes face to face with the past he has spent a lifetime evading.
Although one of director Tom Hooper’s approaches in Les Miserables was theatrical, having his cast sing live during filming, the film’s cinematography, done by Danny Cohen, steals the show. Even with a cast of well-known performers acting out one of the most famous musicals of the 20th century, concentration is not fully on the cast or story; the bold cinematography commands attention, shifting viewer’s focus on to how the film is capturing the cast and musical. On one hand, that is refreshing. This is a film, after all, so the emphasis should be on what cinema can contribute to the musical, not what theatre has been contributing for decades. However, on the other hand, a strong cinematic stamp on the film is only as good as the stamp itself. In this case, with unrelenting cuts, dramatic angles, and the camera’s unremitting movement, the cinematography of Les Miserables is often distracting.
From its opening scene, the camera movement, thus visual perspective, is unrestricted. Sweeping in from the sea and landing on Jean Valjean and other prisoners towing a massive ship into port suggests how free perspective will be in the film; the camera will move, or give the appearance of movement, as though it was a bird, catching every piece of the action by gliding around and through it. Moreover, cuts from the watery port up to Javert’s station as he oversees the prisoners highlight just how quickly shots change in Les Miserables. The back and forth cutting between Valjean, Javert, and the action at the port establishes a quick pace and creates tension through rapid visual shifts. Lastly, dramatic high and low angles on these characters (the first two to be introduced) spotlight a grandiose and thrilling quality about Les Miserables’ power. Movement is free, cuts are quick, and the shots are dramatic; this is Cohen and Hooper’s cinematic recipe for an extravagant Les Miserables film. Unfortunately, as the film goes forward this bold cinematography becomes hard to keep up with; this amount of visual stimulation can be overwhelming and irritating.
However, audiences and critics alike seem to adore Les Miserables, largely for the one moment in the film when the aforementioned cinematic technique falls to the wayside. In addition to Hugh Jackman’s moving performance as Jean Valjean, the specific moment in Hooper’s film that seems to have captured viewers’ attention and famed Les Miserables as a hit is Anne Hathaway’s (Fantine) rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” during which the film’s cinematography changes. Although Hathaway is being credited for her performance, looking at how Hooper sets-up this particular scene suggests that there is much more at work in “I Dreamed a Dream” than simply a strong performance from a supporting player; a drastic shift in cinematic technique leads viewers to land on the “I Dreamed a Dream” scene because of its striking visual differences from the rest of the film. That is, in the “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence, Hooper abandons all camera movement and cutting, allowing viewers a break from excessive camerawork and a chance to emotionally connect with a character during a raw and poignant moment of distress.
But, before exploring the “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence, it is worth mentioning how Hooper builds to Fantine’s song. “Lovely Ladies,” the sequence immediately before “I Dreamed a Dream,” is full of wild cinematography. Set in the urban underbelly of 19th century Paris, “Lovely Ladies” captures Fantine’s abrupt yet unavoidable descent from working class woman to working woman. In coming down the stone steps to sell her hair for extra money, Fantine seems to trip down the rabbit hole and, like Alice’s plunge, Fantine’s fall is fast and confusing. This particular musical number contains dramatic camera angles, stedicam, zooms, and, perhaps most noticeably, countless cuts in rapid succession which display images that play on size, shape, and hue of darkness. Even though the scene’s chaotic and fast-paced cinematography suits “Lovely Ladies” (since the number aims at communicating frenzy), the visual whirlwind overwhelms. In less than two minutes, Fantine’s transformation is complete, but how the events of those minutes are shown is so visually sensationalized it is barely digestible. The cinematography is distracting, yet it juxtaposes beautifully with what comes next.
In the very next scene a dramatic change occurs, a change that has attracted a large amount of attention from viewers. Sitting alone in a ship’s cabin, Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” filmed with a remarkably muted cinematic approach. There are only three cuts during the entire song, and the camera remains in a close-up on Anne Hathaway. In fact, all that can be seen of the background is dark and rather indistinguishable, keeping the attention exclusively on Hathaway’s face. Fantine’s song is full of emotion, and refusing to cut the scene with various shots supports that emotion; without cuts the emotion of the scene is undiluted.
Hathaway has received praise for her performance, particularly in the scene (and she will undoubtedly win the Oscar for her rendition of this song, just as Jennifer Hudson won the same Oscar a few years ago for her rendition of “I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls), but the actor’s performance is only part of what makes this scene work. Clearly the decision to change the cinematic approach in “I Dreamed a Dream,” capturing Hathaway’s performance without cuts and in a close-up, sets this scene apart from the rest of the film; juxtaposing this scene against the others is what draws viewers attention to it. With Hathaway’s committed performance and the directorial decision to mute the camera’s technique, the scene comes off as one of the most memorable and emotionally satisfying in the entire film.
Unfortunately, the wild cinematography picks back up immediately after “I Dreamed a Dream” and rarely calms again for the duration of the film. Although the film is so successful in many ways–acting, costuming, and set design–the cinematography was a risky move that did not pay off. In the case of Hooper’s Les Miserables, the bold cinematic technique clearly distinguishes this adaptation from other film versions, and communicates the musical in way unique to cinema, however the cinematography, which should have focused attention, is so over-the-top that is distracts it.