SPECTACULAR SWEEP, ROMANTIC grandeur, narrative richness, an improbably happy, morally instructive ending--Les Miserables, which is less an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel than a melodramatic meditation on its themes, has all the old-fashioned, totally unfashionable virtues.
Claude Lelouch's film, which relocates the French national epic in the 20th century, mostly during World War II, also has all the defects those virtues imply. It is full of absurd coincidences, broadly archetypal characters and situations (yes, a Nazi thumps out a piano concerto while a prisoner is being tortured nearby), and a sentimentality that verges at times on the woozy. It's as if the writer-director, who in certain high-toned circles will never be forgiven for making A Man and a Woman, had never heard of modernism, let alone postmodernism.
Yet his Les Miserables is more sophisticated than the feelings it evokes, and infinitely more compelling than you can imagine a film derived from such a familiar source might be (there have been at least seven movie adaptations of it, not to mention an unstoppable stage musical). Lelouch understands that Jean Valjean and his friends, foes and milieu have long since permeated our consciousness, that you can't just uproot them, plunk them down unchanged in modern times and expect anyone to see the result as more than a gimmick.
What Lelouch does instead is divide Valjean in two, a father and son (both played by a wonderfully battered Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose son Paul plays the character in a transitional passage). Then he provides him with adventures that analogize, rather than slavishly imitate, those of his literary model. This figure, called Henri Fortin, is throughout aware of his resemblance to Hugo's original. He sees movie versions of the story, and people keep telling him that his physical strength, moral fortitude and frequent bad luck remind them of Valjean. He wouldn't know. He's illiterate, a retired boxing champion who drives a moving van.
It is this work that brings him into contact with the Ziman family, middle-class Parisian Jews who hire him to help them escape the Nazi occupation--promising, in return, to read Les Miserables to him on the way to the Swiss border. Much of the film focuses on the fracturing of this family and their terrible struggle to survive. In the meantime, of course, Fortin is obsessively pursued by his version of Inspector Javert, here a nameless policeman collaborating with the Nazis and a man seemingly as outraged by Fortin's lack of complexity as he is by his untutored goodness.
The question of whether that goodness can survive, whether it can extend its grace to the tormented Zimans and at the same time triumph over the fateful malignity of the relentless cop, remains the central question, for Lelouch as for Hugo. But this is not, finally, a movie that encourages such abstract considerations. It is all shameless pace and jostle, a compendium of evil (war, suicide, poverty, injustice, exploitation) that yet asks us to believe that common decency (and a strong back) can eventually triumph over it. Maybe so, maybe not. But how pretty it is to believe it may. And how pleasurable it is to be absorbed into the bloodstream of this movie and be borne along on its racing pulse.