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Raymond Bernard's Les Misrables (1934) is arguably the crowning effort of French studio filmmaking in the 1930s. The film's great achievement is to bring the world of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel convincingly to life through meticulous direction, acting, cinematography and production design. The closest English-language parallel is perhaps David Lean's pair of Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), although Les Misrables operates on a much larger scale.
To be sure, even the nearly five-hour running time of Les Misrables is by no means enough to capture all of Hugo's novel. Besides its intricate plot, the novel includes numerous authorial ruminations by Hugo such as a comparison between the June 1832 Republican Insurrection, which is central to the novel's action, and the Revolution of 1848, which occurred well after the novel ends. Hugo further wrote at length on the Battle of Waterloo, to which the film alludes only through the character of Thnardier and his painting. Hugo even describes the history of the Paris sewers. Another minor difference between the novel and film is that Raymond Bernard's adaptation is divided into three separate films--"Tempest in a Skull," "The Thnardiers" and "Liberty, Sweet Liberty"--whereas the novel is divided into five volumes: "Fantine," "Cosette," "Marius," "Saint-Denis" ("L'idylle rue Plumet et l'pope rue Saint-Denis" in French), and "Jean Valjean." Still, this is commonly regarded as the most faithful film version on the whole.
Son of the famous playwright and novelist Tristan Bernard, Raymond Bernard (1891-1977) initially developed a reputation in the early Twenties for intimate psychological dramas, including a few adaptations of his fathers' own works, though he later proved to be a master of the large-scale historical spectacle as well. Some of his major films include The Miracle of the Wolves (1924), The Chess Player (1927) and the now-lost Tarakanova (1930). Bernard's World War I epic Wooden Crosses (1932) depicted such realism in its war scenes that Fox purchased the rights to the film in order to reuse the footage in is own productions, including John Ford's The World Moves On (1934) and Howard Hawks' The Road to Glory (1936).
The lead actor Harry Baur (1880-1943) is best known today for his performances in Abel Gance's Un grand amour de Beethoven (1937) and this film, arguably the strongest of his career. However, the diverse and prolific actor also played King Wenceslas in the notorious 1896 stage production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi and in a number of Jewish-themed films during the Thirties, among them Julien Duvivier's David Golder (1930) and Le Golem (1935). In 1943, during the occupation of France, he was found dead after being interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo.
Jules Kruger (1891-1959) was one of the most talented cinematographers of his day, working on major French productions such as Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928), Bernard's Wooden Crosses and Julien Duvivier's Pp le Moko (1937). Les Misrables, in particular, is notable for its extensive use of underlighting, chiaroscuro lighting and canted tilted framing. As in Napoleon, Kruger uses handheld camerawork, especially during the 1932 insurrection, though more selectively and with far more restraint than in Abel Gance's film. The cinematography in Les Misrables also stands out for Kruger's complex interior lighting schemes, which bring forward the vivid textures of the period-accurate sets in addition to delineating the characters within the frame and contributing to their expressive physical presences. In that respect it stands out as a high point in French studio lighting of the era.
The composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) is known mainly for his orchestral composition Pacific 231 (1923), but he in fact wrote a number of film scores besides the one for Les Misrables, including for Abel Gance's La Roue (1923), Napoleon and Anatole Litvak's Mayerling (1936). The score for Les Misrables illustrates Honegger's characteristic use of driving rhythms, especially during the 1832 insurrection. Another highlight in the score is Jean Valjean and Marius' escape through the sewers of Paris.
According to scholar Dudley Andrew, when Les Misrables was released a number of newspapers and magazines in France attempted to draw parallels between the film's social vision and the unrest caused in France during January and February 1934 - the Stavisky affair and the Paris riots. Comoedia described it as "a film of lofty ideas where the soul of the spectator can meet the great poet whose wisdom is still relevant today." Despite this, for many years the film was available only in various cut versions, some as short as 150 minutes. In the Seventies Bernard reconstructed the film to nearly its original length in collaboration with his editor, Charlotte Guilbert.
Director: Raymond Bernard
Producer: Raymond Borderie
Script: Andr Lang and Raymond Bernard, adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo
Director of Photography: Jules Kruger
Art Direction: Jean Perrier
Set decoration: Lucien Carr
Costume design: Paul Colin
Score: Arthur Honegger, conducted by Maurice Jaubert
Principal cast: Harry Baur (Jean Valjean); Charles Vanel (Javert); Henry Krauss (Monseigneur Myriel); Georges Mauloy (Le President des Assises); Pierre Pierade (Bamatabois); Charles Dullin (Thnardier); Marguerite Moreno (Madame Thnardier); Florelle (Fantine); Marthe Mellot (Mlle Baptistine); Gaby Triquet (Cosette as a child).BW-
by James Steffen
Abel, Richard. French Cinema: the First Wave, 1915-1929. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Andrew, Dudley. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.