Lisa Hendey’s mother is exactly right: the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables is terribly depressing.
It is a depressingly cheap and sterile substitute for a classic, beautiful story. It’s opportunistic, cast in serviceable plastic celebrities, and overwrought to compensate for the vividly clear failures of the cast. It surely wins every time for its literary content, obviously, but it fails miserably on its many demerits as visual and performance art.
Again: the depressing parts about Les Mis are not its well-known Catholic themes or riveting story. Hugo’s tale of mercy, love, and forgiveness is one of the greatest of Western literature. In fact, I think that many people who think they loved the movie are actually confusing themselves. They only loved the story, the content. They mistook their love of the story for their love of the movie. Hugo is the genius, not the actors, directors, or the rest. Some people, like Lisa Hendey, are simply kind enough to see and appreciate Hugo’s masterpiece, not the forced confusion on the screen and blaring through the speakers.
But Sam, didn’t the always unobjectionable Fr. Robert Barron love it, on YouTube?
No, not really. At least that’s not what he said.
He rehearses the contours of the original story, with loose allusions to the film, and notes how lovely it is for two deeply Catholic stories—The Hobbit (a downright atrociously awful waste of time and money and human imagination) and Les Mis—to be popular in the theaters during the Christmas season. Notice, however, how little he says about the actual execution of those stories.
Herein lies the problem. And this is why Lisa’s mother is exactly right in her overall dislike of Les Mis: there is a difference between content and execution. Even though you have the rarest, freshest, most expensive, and highest quality ingredients, you can still over-cook and under-salt the dish and present it in an ugly way.
Good ingredients do not guarantee good culinary art.
The same holds true for film, and all the visual and performing arts. Great content cannot redeem a bad performance. A beautiful story doesn’t guarantee a good movie.
As Catholics, especially in the United States, we are too quick to give a pass to bad art, simply because it has well-intended or truly good ingredients. Oh, this bread is made with wheat from the Holy Land, you say? Well isn’t this bread just delicious! No. It tastes like cardboard. What’s wrong with you? Are you saying that the Holy Land isn’t holy or something?—I think it’s the best I’ve ever had. No, I am saying that this wheat is very old and stale and probably not from the Holy Land to begin with: the bread is poorly baked and I’d rather eat a Big Mac than suffer through choking-down this pious, disgusting bread.
This logic that confuses good intentions or ingredients with good art and performance has contributed to aesthetic impoverishment of Catholic media, liturgy, and more. It also fuels a great deal of sentimentalist nonsense that only further damages our ability to discern things with taste and dignity. If you want to see how sentimentalism can ruin a religious palate, look up “The Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement, circa 1978-1993.” Or watch just about anything on EWTN. Or rent For Greater Glory.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Catholic kitsch. Mexican religious devotion is full of beautifully ugly folk art. I get that. But Les Mis is not that. Especially when you consider the score and the music.
Here are three critical details; three S’s: Sonic quality, Singing, and Staging.
Sonic quality: the film was compressed sonically to a level that really killed the audio dynamics. The orchestra felt like it was being digitally strangled to compensate for the bad and weak singing.
Singing: all around this was a bad outing. All the celebrities went from decent (Hugh Jackman) to embarrassing (the already much maligned Russel Crowe). As moved as you may have been by camerawork that tried to distract your eyes from your ears, especially when Hathaway did her thing, the vocals were quite bad. When you feel relieved that the notes resolved on key, you know that things are not going well. The other singers were decent by comparison, but their acting also suffered a bit as a consequence. Sasha Baron Cohen had something going on, but I suspect that mostly because I didn’t realize that he was an actor.
Staging: the film had its visual moments, but it seemed like a confusion between a film or stage production. That confused routine gave me vertigo until the ridiculous barricade made me laugh.
In a film that uses music as it’s main delivery device, combined with the usual visual expectations of a movie, it adds up to a spectacular failure in terms of its execution. This is depressing indeed, considering the prime ingredients that Hugo supplied.
Lisa’s mom was right. Luckily, “There’s Still Hope For People Who Love Les Mis,” opines The New Yorker. More seriously, you probably shouldn’t expect too much from these sorts of capital ventures. They are not intended to create quality art—they are created and promoted to get butts in seats. Make that munny, hunny. The Big Mac is their business model. And it showed.
The lesson for Catholics is this: just because it’s Catholic, doesn’t mean it’s beautiful. It might even be downright ugly or just plain and forgettable, which is always rather embarrassing. Even more scandalously to some, the converse is also true: my favorite movie of the year was Wes Anderson’s hipsterific Moonrise Kingdom.