This is one of the greatest films ever made. Mark my words. History will bear me out.
Acclaimed French filmmaker Claude Lelouch, whose classic examinations of intimate emotions
include the Oscar-nominated “A Man and A Woman,” paints a sweeping portrait of the human
condition in his epic drama “Les Miserables,” a twentieth-century tale inspired by the
nineteenth-century masterpiece of French writer Victor Hugo. Lelouch’s “Les Miserables”
focuses on two French families who struggle, hope, suffer and ultimately find love and
friendship in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
The film stars international acting legend Jean-Paul Belmondo as Henri Fortin, a humble
man whose life takes him through some of the most important events of contemporary times.
As he alternately rises to heroism and sinks to criminal desperation, Fortin’s existence
mirrors the struggle between good and evil that illuminates Victor Hugo’s character, Jean
When Fortin meets and befriends the wealthy, intellectual Ziman family (Michel Boujenah,
Alessandra Martines and Salome) who are fleeing French and German Nazi persecution of the
Jews, he builds an unusual friendship with the brilliant but desperate trio. And for the
first time, he learns the story of Jean Valjean and comes to see himself as a real-life
extension of Hugo’s protagonist.
The Zimans read Les Miserables to the illiterate Fortin as he smuggles them across the
country, and by the time their momentous journey is finally complete, they have all come
to realize their roles in the parallel epics of literature and life.
With a stellar cast that includes Annie Giradot, Philippe Leotard and Clementine Celarie,
Claude Lelouch incorporates vignettes from Fortin’s past, from the lives of Fortin’s and
Lelouch’s own parents and from Hugo’s novel into the saga, spanning generations and
delineating his-and Fortin’s-belief that, in the words of Willa Cather, “there are only
two or three stories in the world and we must all live them over and over.”
“Les Miserables,” written, produced and directed by Claude Lelouch, and freely adapted
from the novel by Victor Hugo, begins at the start of the twentieth century, with a
glittering New Year’s celebration that soon leads to a man’s suicide. Before we know it,
another man-the lowly Fortin-is convicted of murder and serving time in a cruel prison.
The prison scenes were filmed at Fort Joux, a real jail hundreds of years old. The
forbidding setting brought a sense of gravity to all of the actors and an air of
timelessness to the story of man’s eternal suffering on Earth.
Meanwhile, Fortin’s adoring wife and young son await his release and try their best to
survive until they are re-united. However, it is not to be. Fortin suffers in jail and
dies, and his wife is turned to prostitution by the venal innkeepers who employ her. The
young Henri lives a miserable existence, swallowed by sorrow, until he is taught to box.
After Henri Fortin leaves the inn and becomes a young soldier, the viewer encounters him
about to begin a boxing match in an open hospital courtyard. He is surrounded by hundreds
of wounded World War I soldiers; the year is 1918 and snow is falling heavily, giving the
scene a hallucinatory air. Before the fight can begin, the end of the war is announced, and
the soldiers begin joyously chanting “Fortin, Fortin!”
Scene after scene of spectacle and personal revelation follow, spanning decades and moving
from elegant drawing rooms to wartime prisons to expansive outdoor landscapes. As the Nazi
occupation of France begins to cast its shadow over the country, town after town and peaceful
countrysides as well are transformed into terrifying traps for the Zimans and the thousands
of other French Jewish families. The Zimans travel by train, by truck and by car, hiding in
small towns and under floorboards, far from their beautiful home and fearing death every
As they flee one house, merely steps ahead of their pursuers, they find themselves in the
hands of Henri Fortin, and at the beginning of a friendship that is as strong as it is
unlikely. Throughout the enormous events that follow for all of them, the focus remains on
the personal fortunes, emotions and actions of the people who so fascinated Lelouch and his
creative predecessor, Victor Hugo.
Many years after his sad childhood, Fortin returns to the Guillaumes’ inn as an adult,
accompanied by three criminal accomplices, known as Addition, Blame and Bonnard (Ticky
Holgado, Antoine Dulery and Jacques Bonnot). Fortin is pained by the memories of the treatment
that sent his mother to her death, and determined to confront the brutal innkeepers who were
responsible. But once he arrives he learns that the Guillaumes have died and their son and
grandson, a much kinder duo, now run the inn.
After spending the night at the inn, Fortin’s group awakes to discover Allied ships lining
the horizon. Though they are thrilled by this development, their happiness quickly turns to
terror as they find themselves the target of a vicious shelling. Fortin once again
demonstrates heroism in, ironically, defending the inn.
This is a film made by an artist at the zenith of his powers. The breadth and scope of this
film reaches a level very rarely seen, and is usually accomplished by a director who has
reached the age where his life’s experiences, knowledge of the artistry of cinema and
imaginative fortitude all mesh to create an act of pure magic. Think of Ingmar Bergman’s
Fanny & Alexander, Akira Kurasawa’s Kagemusha, or Laurence Olivier’s King Lear. The way
every scene, character, episode, even the music is integrated is absolutely flawless. It is
equal parts funny, despairing, poignant, courageous, thoroughly engrossing, beautifully
photographed, supremely edited, perfectly paced. The casting of Jean-Paul Belmondo, with his
hounddog face, as Jean Valjean is a stroke of genius because he is so genuinely able to show
confusion, delight, joy, understanding, patience, anger, practically EVERY human emotion
there is, which Hugo used and Lelouch utilizes, so brilliantly. And the beautiful French
actress Alessandra Martines, who has not done as much acting in her life as she has dancing,
gets the honor of embodying the film’s climax, which is one of the most satisfying emotional
conclusions I’ve ever seen.
Reviewer by: Malcolm Lawrence (Seattle)