Raymond Bernard has been described as a forgotten director, and judging from the references I’ve checked (a handful of film encyclopedias, newspaper archives, and several English books on early French cinema) it certainly appears to be true. A few mention him in passing, conceding that he was a critical and commercial success in France at the time, a maker of polished superproductions. According to the notes in Criterion’s Eclipse release a few months ago of Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (1932) and Les MisÈrables (1934), his obscurity is partly due to the collapse of the French prewar film industry during his creative peak, as well as Hollywood’s misappropriation of his work (instead of releasing Wooden Crosses, the film’s startling footage was used to pad out various American war films).
Nevertheless, it’s almost certainly true that Bernard’s nearly five-hour version of Les MisÈrables is the most novelistic and engrossing of the book’s many adaptations, and that includes the capable version–also recently released on DVD–shot by Gregg Toland the following year for Fox. That version boasts fine performances by Fredric March and Charles Laughton (whose babyfaced petulance was never put to better use), but it’s undeniably reduced and simplified by Hollywood dramatic codes. Bernard takes the time to develop characters and themes with much more nuance, and cinematographer Jules Kruger (Napoleon, PÈpÈ le Moko) makes extensive use of expressionist, canted frames 14 years before The Third Man etched them in the popular memory.
The basic story of Victor Hugo’s novel, which took him over 20 years to write, is widely known: in 19th century France, ex-convict Jean Valjean is inspired by a gracious priest to lead a moral life; attempting to escape his past, he becomes a wealthy factory owner who opposes Royalist-era social inequalities as he hides from the law-obsessed Inspector Javert; the drama leads to the historic 1832 student uprising against the monarchy. The novel is divided into five parts, the movie into three, feature-length chapters–Tempest in a Skull, The ThÈnardiers and Liberty, Sweet Liberty–that follow the book closely despite necessary conflations and pruning. The film never seem rushed or slow, but offers a perfectly-paced melodrama with natural rises and falls in the action. (It has appeared in shorter lengths over the years, but Criterion’s print is based on Bernard’s personally restored cut for French TV, completed only months before his death in 1977.)
Bernard is aided considerably by what seems like unlimited production resources (elaborate street sets, rich decor, detailed miniatures) and a talented cast, particularly Harry Baur, who expresses Valjean’s shifting guises, ages, and interior perspectives with tremendous cohesion. Baur takes advantage of his large, burly frame to suggest subtle physical manifestations of the conflicting forces teeming within his character. (His extended acting career began in 1909, but ended on a highly tragic note: his torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1943, a fact that unavoidably intensifies his portrayal, for those in the know, of a beleaguered man who maintains his integrity at all costs.)
The film is also cinematically conceived in ways that impress beyond the realm of resources. Bernard pays particular attention to visual transitions, such as when he matches prison papers rejected by Valjean with party invitations for the bourgeoisie, or when he juxtaposes an empty fireplace with a roaring fire to suggest the changing of the seasons. One sequence is particularly striking: Bernard cuts–Bressonlike–from Javert’s hand grasping Valjean, to a prison window, to its busted bars, back again to Javert’s hand as he knocks on the door of Valjean’s newly suspected hideout, compressing an entire subplot to four shots. Expressionist effects are used to suggest Valjean’s emotional turmoil (handheld, chaotic shots during a personal tantrum, doubly-exposed names on a map that reverberate in his conscience). Drawing from Bernard’s experience with past epics (including the visually impressive but dramatically cumbersome The Chess Player, available on DVD from Milestone), the film stages its climactic scenes of social unrest with startling cinÈma vÈritÈ-like immediacy.
Previous film versions of Les MisÈrables have tended to morph the narrative into a classic protagonist/antagonist structure between Valjean and Javert, but one of this adaptation’s more pleasurable aspects is the way it tempers easy categorizations. Like the book (and unlike many interpretations), Valjean’s inner transformation doesn’t occur immediately during his encounter with the priest, but later as he discovers his own propensity for self-delusion; unlike Laughton’s imperious fanaticism or Anthony Perkins’ simmering determination in the 1978 TV adaptation, Bernard’s Javert is a quiet, introverted presence who shambles through the film like an ordinary policeman merely doing his duty. The most villainous characters are two conniving and opportunistic innkeepers, the ThÈnardiers, whose machinations reach such pathetic extremes, they often seem more tragically absurd than malevolent. In general, Bernard’s adaptation shuns good and evil stereotypes for characters living out their conflicting values formed during their country’s turbulent, post-Napoleonic milieu.
Criterion’s Eclipse label debuted early this year, and as fine as their collection of late Ozu films is, those titles have been readily available as import DVDs for some time; Bernard’s Les MisÈrables is my favorite discovery of the series so far, a richly conceived and fully-formed adaptation that does admirable service to the novel’s timeless moral and social themes. A forgotten masterpiece not to be missed.