Histoire et Les Miserables

The highly successful film, Les Miserables, was recently released to much critical acclaim, with swathes of teenagers, pensioners, families and lovers filling cinemas across the country to enjoy what has been promised as an unforgettable experience. Based on Victor Hugo’s much loved book, this is a poignant musical with excellent singing – particularly from Anne Hathaway – and stunning settings in, of course, Paris, France. But what about history, and its role in the story?

The background to the story is that of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, an unsuccessful and antimonarchist insurrection led largely by student societies. Around 800 died on both sides in the uprising, only intensifying extreme political conflict already held in France at the time. But as many film critics and historians have made clear, this was not the French Revolution – a phenomenon which had actually taken place some 40 years earlier! The film conveys the historical reality of French society in its beginning with Jean Valjean, a criminal who must complete 19 years of hard labour as a result of committing theft. Clearly not a villain, this emphasises the harsh realities of nineteenth century French life for those who were unable to enjoy the luxuries afforded to the upper classes.

Apparently, the story of Les Miserables was inspired by the true story of Eugene-Francois Vidocq, who successfully exploited his criminal career by turning it into an anti-crime industry, creating the Bureau des Renseigements – the world’s first detective agency. Victor Hugo was friends with Vidocq, and according to some sources used Vidocq’s character as the basis for Valjean and Javert, who oversees Valjean’s labours. Valjean goes on to become mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, before we discover that the young Fantine, played in breathtaking fashion by Anne Hathaway, is fired from one of his factories in a cold and ruthless manner, again conveying the social difficulties of dwelling in nineteenth-century France where poverty and unemployment were rife. Fantine’s marks, dirt, poverty stains etc are further proof of her hard and unenviable lifestyle. Fantine is later acquainted with notorious French prostitutes, dressed in incredible nineteenth century fashions, but with a somewhat sinister air to them. Clearly, her innocence and beauty are fantastically out of place in this sordid environment.

Some historians and film critics have bemoaned the fact that, although the entire backdrop to the film is the 1832 rebellion, there is no historical context whatsoever. This is a fair point to make, and for traditionalists makes the storyline somewhat less convincing and, to an extent, rather rushed towards the end. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in one reviewer dismissing the film as being “a hulking, merciless adaptation with a passing resemblance to history”. A more general audience, however, is unlikely to care very much. Sadly, French history is often neglected in British schools, with the opportunity to learn about the eighteenth century French Revolution and later troubles often only available in university.

What does, however, provide an excellent sense of history is the immaculate use of settings in the film, with stunning depictions of Paris, its familiar buildings, as well as less familiar interiors such as Helena Bonham Carter’s luxurious, if intrigue-centred, house. The costumes also accentuate the historical themes pervading the film, with the ladies clad in luxurious silks and adorning extensive make-up reminiscent of nineteenth century French fashion, while male figures stylise in tight-fitting trousers. Even if the film doesn’t necessarily reflect France’s true political situation in the 1830s, it does do a great job of showing the difficulties faced by the French poor in terms of poverty, unemployment, class and gender divisions. The history involved in this film makes it a pleasure to watch and something to see again and again.

Written for Razz by Conor Byrne.

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