How the best film I’ve watched in years pulls hard at the archetype of manliness and far more.
Full disclosure: I have a quote from Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Misérables) tattooed on my body. That is to say, I expected this film to fall embarrassingly short of my expectations.
Billboards for Les Misérables are everywhere here in Hong Kong, and as I’m here for the holidays with my fiancée we decided to go check it out. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Gladiator (Russell Crowe) in a work created by Victor Hugo? Yes, I had to see it. I’d not read any reviews about it, in fact, when we saw it here it wasn’t even released yet back home in the States. I didn’t even know it was in the works or coming out. I had a fairly blank slate but for my own appreciation for Hugo.
The movie opens with an incredible scene (from photo above) of the criminals/slaves pulling a massive boat onto the shore. The camera pans over the entire ship in a fascinating shot that puts you there, and as these bearded and muscular dudes grunt and pull they break… into song. And when Russell Crowe speaks to these men he speaks to them in song. Whoa. Rhyming ABAB quatrains were flying everywhere and from men associated with such cinematic badassness that I at first felt uncomfortable and confused. First thought: My goodness if the entire movie is going to be like this I’m in for a long night. Second thought: My goodness they are going to make a mockery of Les Misérables….
Third thought didn’t come until the mid-way point of the film (a good sign) when it became clear that we were watching what ESPN calls an “Instant Classic.” The movie was ballsy in what it attempted (and achieved) and in this over-the-topness are perhaps too where its flaws shine brightest. But the same has been said for nearly 150 years by academic critics of Hugo’s original work. All the asides, all the wrought attention to detail and the overwhelming Romanticism stood out as flaws to those searching for them, but most now agree that these flaws are all within a novel of originality, depth and master craftsmanship.
Musicals I’ve watched in the past were not also good films. Good films I’ve watched in the past that attempted poetry often didn’t stagger or break the rhymes enough to maximize what the poetry could do. Musicals can often “lose the audience” in that it’s tough to follow along with what’s happening. They can often be so juiced with emotion that they become emotionally boring. What happens in Les Misérables is a well-timed flux of emotions. What I mean is this: When Fantine (Anne Hathaway) delivers a brilliant and raw scene of sadness and longing, for example, the next scene will be one of the humorous Thénardier (Sasha Cohen) swindling people. The movie stays in an emotion just long enough before breaking and going elsewhere. A major flaw in musicals (and perhaps in film and in much literature) is too little of this “breaking.” A single emotion, even if expertly composed, can drag. I didn’t feel that here and I’ve become ultra-sensitive to it over the years.
And then there’s the obvious: Two of Hollywoods most “manly” actors are singing back and forth to each other for over two hours.
Of course I’ve had some interactions with some of my own guy friends who will not see the movie or are otherwise indifferent to it because it’s “a musical” and that means a host of things like “boring” and “gay.” Social media shows most broadly in this regard. Here’s a sample of what I found on Twitter after we wiped our tears and got back to the hostel:
Damn. I couldn’t think of a blockbuster that pulled this hard at gender and sexual archetypes since Brokeback Mountain, and that was a movie about gay men. There are no gay characters in Les Miserables, so clearly it’s the musical genre and the nature of prolonged singing that are associated with femininity and gayness. But what is it about the nature of singing that creates the links to “unmanly” and “gay?”
Is song sustained considered”unmanly” because it is an obvious and spoken emotional expression? Is there something about the gentleness of song itself that grates against our concept of rough and tough masculinity? Are there simply not enough men open to the idea that those who want to go see the film by themselves have to try “not to look gay?” I don’t have any answers but I do have many questions and, honestly, I’m short on patience with guys who judge others or who are entirely closed to the idea (or, rather, totally enclosed within their own belief of manhood) of watching such a film based not on merit or quality or content but because it may pull on their guarded construct of men and manhood.
Final word: Go watch it. Even if it were terrible Les Miserables would be worth watching for the cultural/sexual/gender study alone. I’m no movie critic, but as a poet and fan of Hugo I’m still recovering from not being disappointed. I’m still humming the songs throughout the day. I’m still thinking about its parallels to today’s class struggles and politics. In this age of dumbed-down blockbusters, it was refreshing to see a novel of this magnitude be turned into a movie of, by modern-day blockbuster standards, equal magnitude. It took risks and succeeded because of them. I’ll need to watch the film many more times, but it has potential to make my favorite movies list alongside Forrest Gump and Shawshank Redemption.
–AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham: Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, center, in a scene from “Les Miserables.”