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'Les Mis' and the strange appeal of suffering

  • Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a struggling mother forced into prostitution in 1800s Paris, in a scene from "Les Miserables." (Universal Pictures)

Perhaps you, too, have joined the hordes that filed into “Les Miserables,” watching human tragedy in a theater with stadium seats. The French street urchins are giving those hobbits a run for their box office money — no surprise, since pain has always had a lot of entertainment value. Victor Hugo published the original book in 1862: a 1,200-page epic of love, crime and punishment, skewered by most critics but devoured by the public. The musical, long and luscious, was a staple of the '80s.

A film version was inevitable, and it washes over you nicely; the songs, much to my children's dismay, are impossible to get out of your head. But there's a quality to this particular movie, this modern spin on an old wallow, that feels a little uncomfortable. At some point, it turns from suffering-as-entertainment into something more obscene: Suffering porn.

This has something to do with the medium. When “Les Miserables” made its stage debut, much of the hype was about its grandeur. The characters were little people, pawns in a big story, singing of their tiny woes in counterpoint, dwarfed by the giant set on hydraulic lifts.

Once the whole thing is transferred to a movie screen, the scale reverses: the images are grand, but the misery is individual. This film is all about the close-up, the actor's ability to channel pain. We first see Hugh Jackman when he's emaciated and unkempt, scars beneath patches of ill-kept hair. Once he's cleaned up, we move on to Anne Hathaway, reduced within moments from ingenue to wretch: her hair hacked off, her teeth dirtied by the makeup crew, until at last, she delivers her solo in one long, tear-stained take.

One by one, this happens to the movie's biggest stars: Each is given a chance to sing, cry, and smile ruefully at the same time. Roughly half of them die at the end of the song. On one level, this intimacy is one of the film's strengths. Instead of belting out the lyrics with stage-diva grandeur, the actors sing quietly, imperfectly. Their voices are as weak, as if their tragedies were true.

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