Monday, January 21, 2013

What Went Right With Les Misérables: and Why I'm Sad My Kids Can't See It Yet

If you haven't seen the movie Les Misérables yet, you probably don't want to continue reading this.  Because it has spoilers.  But mostly because you should stop WHATEVER you are doing and GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW.  Seriously.  Quit your job.  Don't pick up the kids from gynmastics.  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.


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Why?  Because this movie is True and Beautiful and Catholic.  (More so even than its source material -- both the book and the musical.)

I'm so late to the theater on this one, that I'm sure all that needs to be has already been written about its extraordinarily well-portrayed themes of forgiveness and redemption and love and self-sacrifice.  And the fact that the famous people singing range from very, very good, to almost terrible.  (All the not-famous people are jaw-droppingly awesome at singing, by contrast.)


But I'm supposed to be telling you if your kids can see it.  And, the answer is going to be mostly, "no."  But YOU should go see it right now and tell your kids all about it.  I absolutely delighted in talking with my older kids (aged 8 and 10) about the characters in this movie.  No one can be unmoved by the scene in which the Bishop tells Jean Valjean that he has bought his soul for God.  Even if that person is only hearing about it second hand.


This movie is FULL of troubling subject matter.  Torture, ostracism, unwed motherhood, cheating, stealing, war, suffering, prostitution, disease, death, death, death, and dentistry.  But it is (almost) all treated in such a truthful and appropriate manner that I beamed inside watching it.


I did not love the scene in which a costumed St. Nicholas is lured into a brothel, seduced, and shown to be joyfully having non-graphic, but right-there-in-front-of-you relations with a prostitute.  It is meant as comic relief, during a musical number, and, of course, it's not the REAL St. Nicholas, it's just a man in a costume.  AND, just like the rest of the characters in the story, he has to deal with the consequences of his decision.  Still, I wasn't crazy about it alongside the moral tone of the rest of the movie.


Les Misérables is rated PG-13, but I would guess kids would need to be older than that to be ready to handle it.  Perhaps sixteen?  It's hard to know, since I don't have any teenagers yet.  To be ready for this movie my kids will need to understand the history of the French Revolution and its aftermath, be familiar with the concept of prostitution, and be emotionally ready to see the deaths of many characters with whom the audience identifies deeply (somehow all the tight shots made me feel I was living their lives). 


I cried watching this movie.  A lot.  A LOT a lot.  So did everyone around me.  But it was worth every tear.


Even the bad guy inspires our sympathy.  Javert is a heartbreaking character.  He is a Catholic too, just like the Bishop, and Valjean.  But his is the faith of the pharisee, while Valjean has the faith of the repentant publican.  Javert is broken by a compassion and forgiveness he can neither understand nor accept.  His journey is truly a cautionary tale worth seeing and sharing.


Apparently Victor Hugo had an estranged relationship with the faith of his youth.  And Hugh Jackman is under the impression that the line, "To love another person is to see the face of God" is an attack on the Catholic church.  All I can say is that, in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Much greater.


While I went to see Les Misérables with my mother-in-law, the husband and his dad went to see Zero Dark Thirty.  The husband offers you the following Catholic Dad Movie Review:

Do not take your kids to see Zero Dark Thirty.  Thank you.

Update: Julie of Happy Catholic* reminded me in the comments that there are consequences for "St. Nicolas" for his choices.  I think she makes a good point and have made some edits to this post accordingly.



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13 comments:

  1. I completely agree, except in the case of the St. Nicholas figure. What I took away from that was that all men are able to fall. He was not, after all, the true St. Nicholas but someone portraying him. Obviously it was simply a job and he was a truly fallible man ... who paid for his weaknesses by being robbed blind. So for me, that worked out with the theme also. :-)

    It also raises the question of whether unquestioning mercy is better than inflexible justice ... in our household anyway. We may notice that Valjean is not quite as ready to dish out his ready mercy when it is his daughter's lover at stake. At least until he checks out the situation and does a self-examination of his own motives. If only poor Javert had been prompted to do the same thing instead of breaking so completely. :-)

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    1. That's a good point Julie. Now that you mention it, I do remember him sitting there sadly on his cart, but I think I didn't understand it at the time.

      The accurate portrayal of the consequences of "choices" is one of my favorite parts of the movie. I love that we are made to understand the choices that Valjean and Fontine made, and we sympathize with them. But the consequences remain. Epic consequences.

      I like that Valjean struggles to make the right choices, but he still does. It reminds me of the end of "I Confess." He's been so noble for so long . . . is he going to blow it now?!

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    2. I think that Valjean struggles from the moment of his epiphany to his death. He struggles with turning himself in to save the man wrongly accused (Who Am I? 24601), he struggles with Marius' love for his daughter and the final struggle is leaving Cosette when she has found her life with Marius. He struggles as we all do on "this never ending road to Calvary". Valjean had the opportunity to reject the mercy offered him by the Bishop, he did not. Javert rejected the mercy he was offered, because in his mind, only justice existed. I think if God himself had offered Javert mercy, he would have spurned, or loathed himself for having to accept it. Javert is a tragic character (in the classic sense), since his total single mindedness towards justice is his undoing. Valjean is constantly questioning if what he is doing is right or just looking out for his own self-interest. They are a great counterpoint to each other.

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  2. Just saw it today with my husband and my 16-year old son. We all loved it. My 16-year old had already read the book in English class, and his teacher is a huge film buff, so they had watched parts of the recorded broadway show and also listened to much of the music. He really loved the movie and we had a great time discussing adaptation, etc. But I agree - I don't think my 14-year old would have been ready for some of the scenes, nor would he really have gotten the larger messages. But fabulous movie. And my husband boo-hooed more than me!

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  3. My husband and 13 year-old daughter went to see it in December. She self-monitored in a very mature fashion, closing her eyes when necessary. She is now several hundred pages into reading the book. She and my husband are fairly obsessed with Les Mis at the moment. As soon as my husband gets home from work, they pick up their conversation (and singing) once again. Perhaps it's time for me to go see the movie...it's been twenty years since I saw the musical, and I feel out-of-the-loop!

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  4. Kendra, you've always loved musicals, anyway. I didn't care too much for the book and I definitely won't see the movie, since I don't care for musicals, but I enjoy your review of it because now I know I can tell others to go see it!

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    1. I'm not sure why I'm unknown, so I thought I'd comment on my comment so you know who said that!

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  5. All of my kids went to see Les Mis (from age 11 to 22) and then stayed up until 1:30 am discussing it, and the discussion continued for many days after. Because my children sing the music around the house, many of the themes are very familiar including the notion of prostitution, suicide, theft, etc. I found the entire "Master of the House" scene distasteful, but I'm pretty sure that Lisette (11) missed the innuendo (or blatant sexual references). It was actually one of my many favorites from the live productions, especially the 10th anniversary production. We have, as a family, discussed the fact that in the music, the Thenardiers are the only ones who swear and use our Lord's name in vain - drawing a line between Val Jean and Javert (who with all his failings, still attempts at righteousness) and the Thenardiers grasping viciousness. I think Javert is a great "Greek tragedy" character - in spite of his good characteristics, he is undone by his tragic flaw his inability to have compassion/give forgiveness/accept forgiveness. Justice without mercy...what a great example of how it goes wrong.
    Anyway, I could go on for hours, but the point is I did let my under 16's go see it, but their familiarity with the story, the previous discussion, the fact they have older siblings and have been exposed to more, and the innocence as to what certain things mean sexually all played into it.
    Patty

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  6. Sorry, history nerd alert here, it's not the French Revolution which is portrayed, at least not in the book, but one of the (many) upheavals which followed it throughout the 19th century (in this case, 1832 - French Revolution is 1789). I will stop pontificating now.

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    1. Hey! I say "the history of the French Revolution AND IT'S AFTERMATH." Because I know that. I didn't read all those Scarlet Pimpernel books for nothin'. :0)

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  8. I saw Les Mis on Broadway when I was five, and I completely skimmed over the sexual parts, and loved the message of Jesus in it. Since then, I have ruined Les Mis for the rest of my family because I love it to the point of obsession. It is one of the most Catholic musicals ever, besides Sister Act (which is a funny musical based off the movie, which your kids could probably see)

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  9. I'm just now seeing this but wanted to comment anyways... I once did costume design for a production of the student version of Les Mis. If there's ever a school or theatre group doing this, I would recommend it for your older kids, probably ten and up. It's not as graphic as the film and you don't really realize that Fontine is a prostitute, at least not as explicitly as in the film. We're such big fans of Les Mis that my first granddaughter who is due in about six weeks is to be named Cosette.

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