Tom Hooper’s latest film is an adaptation of the Broadway sensation Les Miserables. Les Miserables (2012) is a piece of filmmaking so self-congratulatory and obsessive in its style that it is at times difficult to watch. Like Hooper’s last film, The King’s Speech (2010), Les Miserables does not deny any filmic conventions; instead it embraces them, as if there were more truth in artifice and dramatic posturing than there is in artist progression and innovation. Even the claim that Les Miserables is the first musical film to be shot with “live” sound is completely untrue, in fact the technique dates back to 1975. Though Les Miserables is a flawed film, its choice of visual allusions is compelling, indicating a pattern to political rebellion through the ages of Western Civilization.
Firstly, Hooper’s choice of framing Anne Hathaway when she sings I Dreamed A Dream deliberately recalls Carl Theodore Dreyer’s framing of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928). By doing so, Hooper relies on Dreyer’s film to equate Hathaway’s martyrdom with that of Joan Of Arc, referencing not only the spiritual aspects of this iconography, but also the patriotism of both characters for France. Even Hathaway’s short-cropped hair recalls the design of Falconetti’s close up. Hooper also draws upon Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) to root Les Miserables in the context of the development of film and of France. The sequences at the barricades, the battles between rebels and soldiers are cut to the rhythm of the snowball fight in Napoleon.
Les Miserables is not just dependent upon the classics of French silent film, but draws upon the cinema of Soviet Russia to complete its iconic vernacular. Three times in Les Miserables the camera rises straight up into an aerial shot from a tight medium close-up directly above a character’s head. Hooper is recreating a shot from a balloon in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966). Again, Hooper is drawing upon another film to imbue his own film with a sense of spirituality, the release of an abstract weight with the belief in fate. Hooper then ties the political to his film by quoting the aerial shot of a funeral precession for a dead student protestor in Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964). Again, martyrdom plays a part in Hooper’s choice of visual quotation, though this time it is not of a spiritual nature but a political one, as if martyrdom of either kind is equally tragic, equally spiritual and political.
Hooper’s understanding of the development of the cinemematographic langue is telling, though the success of these allusions has little impact. Because Les Miserables lacks the emotional and political urgency of the films Hooper chooses to quote, the quotations themselves lose their power and relevance. Instead Hooper’s quotations read as an attempt to validate himself as a significant artist and film director.