For New Year’s Day, my wife, two friends, and I saw Les Misérables. Visually, it’s amazing. I found Anne Hathaway’s performance most compelling and I decided that Eponine, played here by the broad-shouldered, tiny-waisted Samantha Barks, should have been called “Corsette.” There is the critical scene in Hugo’s masterpiece where Bishop Myriel, also known as Monseigneur Bienvenu (“Welcome”), lies for Jean Valjean, caught by the police for stealing some of the church’s silver. The Bishop tells Valjean that he had forgotten the two best pieces, two candlesticks, and gives them to him, telling him that he’s bought his soul for God and now he must change his life. And Valjean changes his ways, becomes a devout Catholic, and becomes a wealthy man. I did like how the candlesticks, light-providers, were used throughout the film.
This is the only time the Church is represented as an actor in the musical. It offers a foil of grace and salvation (the Ransom Theory model, at that) against the ever-present theme of the exacting and punitive Law™. There is an assumption, pardon the pun, of heaven at Valjean’s death. But this is a musical, so one expects some kind of flamboyant ascent, even if it is only a soaring deathbed duet. But really, except when it’s Jean Valjean asking in a moment of clarity during the first few minutes, Jesus what he, Valjean, has done, religion doesn’t play a pervading part, but it does play a critical part.
Valjean, the stranger, is given food and shelter and even when he takes advantage of kindness, kindness is again bestowed upon him. It’s pretty much the only time a hegemonic institution acts in such a way. Economic, legal, and militaristic powers are all against most of the characters here – except Cosette, who marries into Old Money (lucky her). The First Estate, the Roman Catholic Church, is an easy bête noir for eighteenth-century France, and while Les Misérables takes place after the French Revolution, it would be foolish to think that the Church would have really changed much in thirty years.
The wretchedness of Les Misérables lies in the unkindness towards the stranger such that when kindness is, indeed, shown, it shines all the brighter. Most everyone dies here. And the only one who dies a happy death is Valjean. As Romantically tragic and tragically romantic this may be, it demonstrates how not only how stark things are in the novel and musical, but also how appealing that starkness is. We love Les Misérables. We love the Wretched. They serve as a backdrop for the possibility of kindness. The problem is that the institution of wretchedness embodied in poverty and inhumanity is the default of the world.
It’s easy and lovely to watch beautiful people sing lofty songs of revolution, love, justice, and liberty only to be shot down in their prime. It’s sexy. It’s romantic to die for ideals the observer agrees with. And pretty tomboy Corsette even dies for both the revolution AND for love at the same time! How beautiful is that?! Quite honestly, I found it pretty hott. But this is Musical™ and is the purpose of Musical™: to take an audience’s truths and send them soaring in the most intoxicating and mellifluous way. Musical™, like opera before it, is a mechanism of ascent, a vehicle of apotheosis. It is, for about three hours, the Rapture. This is theatre, whose ancient Athenian purpose was articulated during the religious festivals to Dionysus, a mischievous god of many things, embodied (and disembodying) in Euripides’ masterful tragedy (and personal favorite), The Bacchae. The god is cruel and not one to be fucked with.
And in Les Misérables where is God? God is non-existent, or at best silent. The tension between Law™ and Grace™ are played out ethically, but not explicitly theologically. There is no miracle in Les Misérables, and neither should there be, nor does there need to be. And while there is the occasional confession of faith, faith in God does not mean God exists. There are few and critical acts of kindness in the midst of ever-pervasive sorrow, but those acts! Do they succeed in wiping away every tear? Only for a few. And not for those countless many still in hunger, suffering, and loss. They are the chorus, the scenery, the essential backdrop to specific demonstrations of kindness and cruelty. But those acts of kindness, we the audience laud. And they compel us to fall in love with a story about people who consistently get the short end of the stick. At least it’s not us who are in that position. And at least those people there in the film are pretty, especially Anne Hathaway.