Monday, 24 April 2017

Play for today… Les Misérables (1925-6), Neil Brand, The Barbican

Today was the London Marathon, one film lasting 359 minutes and one piano being played by one man for the whole length: all the right notes, in all the right order with just a couple of breaks for re-hydration and ice-pack application to wrists and brow. By sheer coincidence elsewhere in the capitol there were 40,000 people running 26 miles and 385 yards through its streets. Some were dressed in costumes but most finished in less than five hours and not a single one was playing the piano… For cinemutophiles there could be only one winner and Mr Brand was cheered to the rafters as the long day closed in triumph.

This is one of the most extraordinary silent cinematic experiences you can have this side of Napoleon or a rediscovered first cut of Greed but Les Misérables has its own tone and holds the audience in different ways. It might not be for everybody but so well does it tells its tale by the closing segment you are mourning even relatively minor characters some of whom had not even been “goodies”: shades of grey.

It's a film rich in texture and brave enough to travel at almost reading pace through substantial chunks of its source narrative. There are impressive - almost fleeting – exterior shots that link to the interior shots where most of the story is told; actual locations are used such as the Le Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris along with ancient streets that would pre-date the rebuilt Paris of Naopleon III, but these are used so sparingly in favour of more detailed character-based exposition.

The occassional outdoors
There’s an impressive shot of Gabriel Gabrio who plays grand anti-hero Jean Valjean, seemingly driving a racing carriage but that’s about as close as director Henri Fescourt gets to Gance. It’s a deliberate steering away from the visceral: the anti-Abel.

The sets are opulent and elaborate all the same but the focus is on those fascinating faces who emote the narrative and, over the course of over six hours viewing you grow accustomed to them: like someone else’s life flashing in front of your face…

Even the mis-en-scene and props reflect these players, connecting with their interior lives and intimacies. Valjean’s stick and his stolen candles, that leave him beholden to the forgiving Monseigneur Myriel or the doll he gifts to Cosette which represents both her lost mother and her lost childhood: “play” he keeps on insisting when she is rescued from the slavery of the Thénardier family. Her broken-heeled clog lies empty at the fireplace on Christmas, even after all she has endured, she still hopes for Santa but only Valjean can provide the gift she needs. He keeps those clogs for the rest of his life…

Jean Toulout, Sandra Milovanoff and Gabriel Gabrio argue a point
But none of this would work if the performances were not so impressive. Gabrio is a man mountain of fearsome intent who is so is initially so resilient to goodness you can’t fail to route for his turning. The woman who helps to soften his heart is played by the supernaturally-expressive Sandra Milovanoff who is able to convey both fragility and strength with equal conviction though piercing eyes and a protean physicality. Cosette, the daughter she leaves in the care of the abusive Thénardiers, is played by Andrée Rolane who is especially impressive in the gothic scenes in which she is forced into the night to fetch water from a forest alive with shadowy wolves, evil trees and ghostly threats: like Mary Pickford in Sparrows only a third of the age.

Andrée Rolane
Cosette grows up to be played by Milovanoff again who eventually falls for the gentile Marius (François Rozet) who inspite of being a bit of a self-indulgent fop (actor and character) also attracts Éponine Thénardier – a street-smart petty criminal played really well by Suzanne Nivette; all feral calculation and fearlessness, willing to fight even her own venal father;  a Waterloo-grave robber turned blackmailer played with cowardly malice by Georges Saillard.

The thieves are bad but the police are almost worst, Jean Toulout’s Javert is an almost psychotically-driven believer in the back and the white…
I have dabbled with Zola, Maupassant and Flaubert but, shamefully, I have to confess that I have not read Hugo and nor have I watched any of the 50 or so adaptations of this book – not even the long-running musical or film of the same. I therefore experience this all for the first time without preconception, my “Fantine” Hathaway-free.

Charles Badiole is also good as Gavroche, revolutionary urchin
As with elements of von Stroheim’s Greed, this film felt like an adaptation especially with the odd narrative leap made, possibly, with the assumption that the audience of the time knew he story. But its focus on characterisation over narrative perfection is the saving grace and you care about Marius’ monarchist grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand in the end as you do the lovelorn Éponine who does right even in death by the man she loves but who loves another… even, maybe, the conflicted policemen Javert who simply cannot compute the good that his badman target has done… it’s as if he can’t live with the uncertainty this creates: redemption is simply too much for him to accept.

David Robinson, in his notes for the 2015 Pordenone screening, quotes Victor Hugo about this ever-present possibility of turning a bad life good, for the author redemption is “…a  progress  from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth,  from  night  to  day,  from  appetite  to  conscience,  from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God”.

Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean with his trusty walking stick/cudgel
This was the third time Neil had accompanied the restoration and his playing relaxed with the story; as in any marathon you need to pace yourself and there’d be time for the sprint finish later once the barricades went up and the cannons started going off. There were so many poignant phrases and a carefully constructed tempo that was both coherent and free-flowing. This is a very unusual film experience and Mr Brand saw it all coming without giving anything away in a masterclass of matched rhythm and sentiment.

At times there were measured notes filled with all the atmospheric spaces of Keith Jarrett which would then give way to huge, crashing, broken-hearted chords as two hearts meet and a third is broken, or faith is betrayed and anger rules hearts beaten down by an unforgiving state that rewards the “snitches”, the gossips and cruel-hearts in general.

Big themes and Neil provided the improvisations to match:  churlish to ask for an encore (I did) but you should not miss the chance to see him go again in Cambridge later this year. I’ll post details when they’re confirmed you really don’t want to miss this!

The Barbican Cinema 1 was over two thirds full and it’s a shame some missed out; if you are interested in silent film this is one of those events you will treasure: anyone can play a DVD in their sitting room but very few can play the piano for so many waking hour dreamers.

Credit to the Barbican for putting the show on and I hope there are more opportunities to view this stunning restoration in such a setting. Even the title card translations were inserted live as the print only came with French; another marathon, another world record!

Souvenir booklet from 1925


  1. Great post Paul. I recall seeing several people in tears after the movie ended. Les Miserables is a powerful story regardless of how one first experiences it. This is one of the best adaptations though along with the 1934 talkie.


  2. Thanks Rob, it was so gently engaging - a film that took its time but pulled you in with those rich characters. Must watch the 1934 version now (and read the book!).

    Best, Paul