Javert and Valjean at Prayer

Javert and Valjean at Prayer December 28, 2012
What are puppy dog eyes doing here?  Anathema.

The two things I found most frustrating about the Les Mis movie were the camerawork and Russell Crowe’s performance as Javert.  And they both came together to annoy me during “Stars.”  Crowe is sad-eyed instead of steely from his first appearance and, for this number, director Tom Hooper places him on a ledge.  This seems to be done simply so that Hooper can set up some parallelism in his cimematography; the shots of Javert walking right along the edge of the roof in “Stars” are echoed when he paces the bridge in “Soliloquy (Javert’s Suicide).”

But these two scenes don’t correspond in this way.  Javert has no suicidal ideation; he is pure certainty.  Frankly, even the pacing, on or off a roof, makes no sense.  Javert is complete and stable in himself.  It’s very fashionable to show villians as sympathetic by revealing their weakness and doubt, but it might be a more accurate (and a better warning!) to show that uncharity can feel like joyful strength.  In Hugo’s novel, he describes Javert as follows.

He, Javert personified justice, light, and truth, in their celestial function as destroyers of evil. He was surrounded and supported by infinite depths of authority, reason, precedent, legal conscience, the vengeance of the law, all the stars in the firmament; he protected order, he hurled forth the thunder of the law, he avenged society, he lent aid to the absolute; he stood erect in a halo of glory; there was in his victory a reminder of defiance and of combat; standing haughty resplendent he displayed in full glory the superhuman beastliness of a ferocious archangel; the fearful shadow of the deed which he was accomplishing, making visible in his clenched fist the uncertain flashes of the social sword; happy and indignant, he had set his heel on crime, vice, rebellion, perdition, and hell, he was radiant, exterminating, smiling; there was an incontestable grandeur in this monstrous St. Michael.

Javert is a grotesque echo of something beautiful and truly desirable   He lives in the moral uncanny valley.  Crowe’s best moment as Javert comes after he is discovered by the revolutionaries, who plan to put him to death. He barks out, “Shoot me now or shoot me later / Every schoolboy to his sport / Death to each and every traitor / I renounce your people’s court!”  His defiance is tinged with contempt, but here Crowe musters a joy akin to the Trappist martyrs in Of Gods and Men.  He is free because he answers to something higher than other men and is conserving something beside his own life.

The film could have done more to heighten Javert’s jarring not-quite-virtue if “Stars” had been set up to parallel “What Have I Done” instead of the suicide.  Valjean sings “What Have I Done” in a moment of profound doubt, as he decides whether he can accept the forgiveness of the bishop he has robbed.  Let’s listen to it again:

The staging of this number also frustrated me, since it was really ham-handed.  In Hooper’s production, Valjean sings this number while in a side chapel of the bishop’s church.  It also involves a lot of pacing with too-literal blocking.  During the parts of the song where Valjean wants to yield to grace, he walks toward the chapel; when he doubts, he walks away.

But, since both “What Have I Done” and “Stars” are offered up as prayers, imagine if they were both set in church, so we could contrast the Catholicism of both characters.  Here, Valjean is working out his salvation with fear and trembling, just on the cusp of succumbing, while Javert is a rock of stability.  Valjean is pursued by furies, while Javert is full of peace and joy.

Until we rest in Heaven, something about the Imago Dei will chafe us.  That discomfort is data; we can turn in towards the flinches to find what to mend.  Javert’s warning is in his peace.  He must pray to a very small god, if that god is satisfied with Javert-as-he-is, and only requires him to hold the line.  Valjean’s conversion begins with his own weakness; when he wonders how he can know that he has a soul, he has his answer in the lyric “I feel my shame inside me like a knife.”

Valjean’s virtue is in choosing to throw himself into the pain, so he can emerge on the other side of the crucible as a new creation.  Valjean’s persistence is the result of the same confidence and joy that Javert has in defying Enjolras and the students.  But Valjean has cast himself into battle against a subtler and more powerful enemy; Enjolras threatens to take Javert’s life, but only Valjean himself can threaten his own soul.  His worship and his defense is constant transformation and dying to self.

To watch both men at prayer is to see the danger of absolute faith and love given to anything lower than God.  Javert’s certainty is the proof of his idolatry, while Valjean suffers because he is growing into something larger than himself.

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  • Leonhard

    Is Javert a hypocrite or not? If he’s good, then he doesn’t need forgiveness. If he needs forgiveness, then he’s not the good person he thinks he is.

    • deiseach

      It’s important that he’s not a hypocrite. He is perfectly willing to be crushed by the same rules he imposes on others; if he falls then he should be punished with the same severity he metes out. That’s why he can’t accept Valjean’s mercy, either when he thinks he has been falsely accusing him as mayor or later, when Valjean saves his life from the revolutionaries.

      Leah has mentioned that his heresy could be Pelagianism, but I think he is nearer to the French heresy of Jansenism, as exhibited by some of the nuns of the convent of Port-Royal after it was reformed. Mere Agnes Arnauld (sister and successor as abbess to the more famous Mere Angelique) and her nuns were described by the Archbishop of Paris as being “pure as angels and proud as devils”, and that’s Javert. He is confident in his integrity and virtue and he certainly possesses the cardinal, natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, but he is lacking in the supernatural virtues, most especially that of charity or love. And he very much has pride.

      Like the Donatists, Javert believes that once you have fallen seriously, there is no getting back up, no going back on the path, and consequently no forgiveness or mercy is possible. His God is remote, terrible, and an all-consuming fire of purity – “All our righteousness is as filthy rags”, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, “Who shall see God and live?”

      He does not exhibit mercy to others because he does not expect mercy for himself and cannot be humble enough to accept it when it is offered. If, as Leah suggests, Valjean and Javert have their arias staged in church, then Valjean would be inside, before the crucifix, while Javert would be outside at the west entrance, beneath the Last Judgement and the Weighing of Souls. Hugo specifically likens him to St. Michael, who is depicted in Mediaeval art as weighing souls on Judgement Day (here dressed in armour, but more usually vested as a deacon).

      It’s very telling that “Stars” has Javert singing about falling as Lucifer fell, because that is his flaw – his pride.

  • In the movie, didn’t the scene with Javert’s singing “Stars” begin in a chapel-like setting before he goes and walks on the ledge? I seem to remember him reading a book (Bible?) in front of a crucifix.

    • leahlibresco

      Not sure; it was the ledge that dominated the scene. Guess I’ll have to see it again to double check!

      • Richard

        Yeah, it’s done on the roof of a church, I believe.

  • Mark G.

    I have loved the musical production of “Les Miserables” ever since seeing it for the first time 20 years ago and I always feel closer to God every time I see it. After seeing the movie, I can’t help but wish somebody else had been cast as Javert. While I love Russell Crowe as an actor I feel that his puppy dog eyes were more a result of his discomfort with singing and acting, when his forte is definitely, just delivering a dramatic line. He looked to me like he was concentrating too hard on hitting the right notes than portraying his character. But, you nailed it. The best acting that he did in the whole movie was when he was tied up waiting to be executed.

    The juxtaposition of these two characters, one who represents God’s Justice while the other represents God’s mercy, is pure genius. Can’t wait to see it again.

    • Robert

      Really? I thought his eyes told the story well of Javert. Its more of a confused look than puppy dog eyes really. And well, Javert being confused, thats pretty much why he kills himself. He doesn’t have to be scary. Playing him cold, distant, and harsh works fine, if not better. Stars is not meant to be blurted out, his softer version is fine. Much better than Jackman’s Bring Him Home, the prayer which was turned into yelling in the streets. Javert has always been my favorite character because he is such a different antagonist than what people are used to. He isn’t supposed to be evil and menacing, its his black and white view of the world and his merciless nature with criminals (including Val Jean) no matter what. Once a criminal always a criminal. I feel he played the role fine, not outstanding compared to other Broadway Javerts, but I really enjoyed it.

      • And well, Javert being confused, thats pretty much why he kills himself.

        Yeah, but he needs to express pure certainty in Stars so it can contrast with his suicide monologue. Without the initial certainty, there’s no journey for the character.

  • mickey

    haven’t seen the new film or the play but saw the film version with Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman and thought the characters in this version was amazing!

  • brand

    From what I had read Hugo was a theist and not a Christian but he makes the hero of the novel ,Jean Valjean,be someone who converted to Christianity,so to speak,because of Bishop Myriel.There is a story,which may be false or not,that Hugo met Don Bosco when the Italian saint visited Paris.And that he told him,as their conversation,that he had faith and even intended to die with the attention of a priest.

  • TerryJames

    Not puppy eyes. Bewilderment. Javert is saying, Why can’t all see the highest value–justice? At least that’s how I saw Javert. It was beyond his comprehension that any value could be higher.

  • I’ve enjoyed your take on the prayer aspect of these two characters Leah.
    A Jesuit brother of mine also wrote on a similar subject, contrasting the faith of the 2 men in a very insightful way -I may add, a very Jesuit way!!-


    I’m thrilled that so many Catholics are picking up on the spiritual depth this story carries. I’ve been such a fan of it over the years that I never really bothered ‘reexamining’ it from a more spiritual point of view, or was content to simply describe it as a Catholic story and to leave it at that!

    Also, I think I’ve always had a bit more of a Social Justice angle around this show thanks to Enjolras and his mates, but also thanks to the Hope carried by Valjean that love must triumph in the end.
    A great message for the world to hear during this holiday season!


  • Joe

    I finally saw Les Mis last-night and I loved it!!! I was creeped out the most by Valjean’s words to Jarvet just as he frees him from the revolutionaries “You have done your duty, nothing more.” I had to squirm in my seat it was as if Valjean was damning Jarvet as he freed him. Christians must go beyond mere duty and basic morality and excel in Charity as Valjean does throughout the movie. I would be horrified if at my judgement Christ spoke those to me.

  • David Naas

    Javert — none so dogmatic as the doubtful, none so prosletyzing as the uncertain convert, none so bent on justice as the one who knows how much (s)he needs mercy.

  • Pat

    Is it worthwhile noting that the Cathedral de Notre Dame featured a couple of times in the “Stars” in the new movie?

    Although the Javert pacing scene was emotionally dulled for me because I had “I Walk the Line” running through my head.

  • Ambaa

    Though I am not a Christian and Les Miz is a quintessentially Christian story, I do love it. In particular I see so much that is familiar and human in Javert and his approach to life. Valjean is a saint, but I think most of us fall into the traps that lead Javert to his unhappy death.