Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and which has the wider vision? – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You might be forgiven for thinking there was only one show in town today – the epic screening of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables. But not only were there several films on offer beforehand, there were schedule clashes – yes, clashes – meaning that I had to make some painful decisions. I can’t bear to tell you what I missed (“Here’s what you could have won,” as Jim Bowen would say), but this is what I saw before my voyage to Paris, when I took a detour to Cinemazero.
The morning began a little coldly with a sedate documentary about Gaston Méliès, brother of the more famous Georges, and his travels around the globe with a movie crew. Undoubtedly this is a fascinating topic – Gaston was an adventurous soul who travelled far and wide, making both fiction and documentary films, and occasionally hybrid affairs too. Wherever he went – Tahiti, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand – he sought out the real locals, and cast these non-professional actors in dramatic roles. Back when so many people in the States were relying on blackface, as we have seen, Gaston sought a greater diversity and authenticity. A very interesting subject, but this film, Gaston Méliès and the Wandering Star Company (2015), was not full of the same enthusiasm as its protagonist. I wanted to know more – how he developed such wanderlust, how the films were received, how the communities he entered related to cinema after he left and whether all this jaunting about contributed to his brother’s financial ruin.
If anyone can raise the tempo it’s our British sweetheart Betty Balfour, and she starred in a new rediscovery, a German-UK-Sweden co-production that gives euro-puddings a good name. Would they were all as sweet. The plot was as intricate as the lovely lace gowns Betty was so fond of, but to be brief Flickorna Gyurkovics (A Sister of Six, 1926) is a comedy of repeated mistaken identities all coming between Balfour and her handsome archduke and a happy-ever-after. It’s mischievously funny, and wickedly shot too, being photographed by none other than Carl Hoffman. Balfour is brilliant, my own dear favourite Karin Swanström has a small role and there’s even a little monkey, followed around by Hoffman with a handheld camera. Such delightful touches abounded – for example, a POV shot of photograph of Balfour and her sisters, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke animated itself, as the girls wriggled and giggled. A real treat, even if it is nigh-on unsummarisable.
And did I mention that La Balfour looks good, devastatingly good, in drag? There was more fun to be had with the dressing-up box after lunch. Who can resist a programme subtitled “The Superstar and the Myth”? This section was devoted to an Italian legend, Fregoli, a 19th- and early 20th-century quick-change artist. Sadly, madly, he destroyed his props, costumes and the films he made as soon as he retired. Surplus to requirements or so he thought. But a few years ago this packet of fragments was discovered in Viareggio and so we were lucky enough to see them projected on the Verdi’s giant screen. The programme was ntroduced with great verve by Arturo Brachetti, a comic performer who continues the Fregoli legacy today, but as he pointed out, with the aid of Velcro and magnets. The films themselves were brief and deceptively simple, records of nifty turns and a few editing gags-in-progress. There were out-takes and fluffs in this sequence, but the successes, such as a multicoloured cascading bouquet were special indeed. And despite their snipped length, something of Fregoli’s warmth and charisma remained in the frame.
After a diverting day, the event we had all been waiting for. We have seen many vaunted strong men at the Giornate this year, but none of them can handle a solid silver candlestick to Jean Valjean, the born-again hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which we are seeing in Henri Fescourt’s 1925-6 adaptation. In fact, of all our Giornate leading men, Valjean has most in common with Chuji, the pained and secretly noble protagonist of Chuji Tabinikki. He was played here with great authority, but perhaps a little ponderously by Gabriel Gabrio – much in the vein of a Marlon Brando type, especially as he aged, someone pointed out. This is about moral strength, as well as the heft to lift carts single-handed. And this film does plenty of heavy-lifting too; it is a faithful, and skilful, adaptation of an uncontainable novel. I was captivated by its visual elegance but also its well crafted story, which builds almost unbearable tension despite its bountiful events, characters and subplots. Much has been cut from the novel of course, and I suspect that would be true even of the original sevenish-hour cut, but what remains here is Hugo’s imagery, his themes and his characters.
It’s quality film-making this, the sort of work that does not reinvent cinema but comes to define it. Each detail of characterisation is attended to, and likewise every inch of the mise en scene is immaculately prepared. The brief battlefield scene after Waterloo, for example, is composed, lit, tinted and toned as if it were an oil painting to be gazed on for hours, but still the gore and the immorality are gruesome enough to stir our stomachs. What rescues it from being copperplate heritage cinema is the subject matter. The source novel is made of such flammable material as the cruel inequalities our society (then and now) rests upon, and the perilous balance of one’s soul. So Les Misérables is picturesque, but not entirely prettyfied, which is a blessing. The sight of winsome Cosette in rags provokes raw pity, rather than coos; the sewer is dark and filthy; Valjean’s burned skin oozes fluid.
Composition is king here, but there are a few tricks and flourishes, used very well. As the bishop consoles a condemned man, a superimposed cross overwhelms the image of a guillotine. As Cosette stumbles into the woods at night to draw water, Fescourt’s nightmare montage of beasts and birds and monsters is genuinely terrifying. And the chiaroscuro interior of the Gorbeau tenement when Valjean is ambushed is laden with doom.
With such pieces as this, the casting of even the minor roles is crucial, and there was a fine selection of grotesques in the shadows and on the barricade tonight. In the main cast, Sandra Milowanoff was very watchable in a dual role as a punchy Fantine and a nervy Cosette. I especially liked Henri Maillard’s dancing, leching octogenarian Gillenormand and Nivette Saillard as a brooding Éponine – who of course, to return to yet another theme of the festival, takes a turn in drag.
Restored in a way that redefines painstaking, at 4k, and projected at the Giornate on 35mm, Les Misérables looks to have been reborn and should be shown as often as possible. We were especially honoured tonight that Neil Brand took on the Herculean task of accompanying the whole film. He played, and played, and played, such sensitive and sumptuous music, I could barely believe it was the work of one man and one piano alone. Matching the film’s scale and singularities note for note, Brand’s score was the triumph that the film deserves. Of course I have praised Brand’s work before, but this was really something else, and I raise my hat to him. His standing ovation tonight was well earned. Somebody get that guy a bouquet!
We all felt a little battered and bruised as we emerged from the Verdi after nearly seven hours of spiritual pain, but also a little enlivened too, with the strength of a Valjean. When you experience something this sumptuous, when you see how care and artistry can play upon your emotions and extend your empathy – well, it makes your life better. And that’s a good night out at the flicks, by anyone’s estimation.
Intertitle of the day
Does Betty Balfour’s character in Flickorna Gyurkovics really smoke cigars? No. “Normally I sniff cocaine!”
Silent cinema heroes of the day
The recipients of this year’s Jean Mitry prize were Adrienne Mancia and Lenny Borger, without whom we wouldn’t have been treated to Les Misérables tonight. I have had the pleasure and honour of getting to know Borger a little at festivals over the past few years – many of you will know him far better. But I have to say, he is a total dude.
Confession of the day
I still haven’t finished Les Misérables – the novel that is. Just 100 pages to go … but I am well spoilered up now.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here