So, I finally got around to watching arguably one of the most iconic films of all time- Les Miserables, about France in the 1800s. The film opens with Jean Valjean, a prisoner, being released from prison after a nearly 20-year long imprisonment simply for stealing bread. As a former convict, he cannot find a job or a place to stay, but a generous Bishop offers to take him in. However, Valjean tries to steal the Bishop’s silverware and run away, but is caught by the police- still, the Bishop stands up for him, saying that he himself gave Valjean the silver so he could start a new life in the world. Valjean is stunned and ashamed- to honor the Bishop, he makes himself a new persona to save other people.
Almost ten years later, Valjean is a rich factory owner- but he is shocked when a man named Javert (formerly a prison guard at the prison where Valjean was held) comes to meet Valjean as the new police chief. Javert begins to suspect Valjean’s real identity. Concurrently, one of the factory workers named Fantine is fired for having a daughter out of wedlock, named Cosette. Cosette is revealed to be living with a greedy family named the Thenardiers, who demand money from Fantine. Fantine, desperate, becomes a prostitute to pay her debts. After she attacks an abusive customer, Javert arrests her, but Valjean remembers her as a factory worker and takes her to a doctor. However, the unrest in Paris has festered for too long- things are about to get, for lack of a better term, heated.
Les Miserables takes place during the French Revolution. The movie is set amongst many historical landmarks in Paris- such as Notre Dame. The time period shines through- the deep social divides and political unrest of the Revolution bleed through and impact all the characters in different ways.
A big social issue in the film was the issue of poverty and criminality. Deep social and class divides between the rich and poor were very common at this time, leading to deep feelings of unrest in the country. In addition, even stealing was treated as a serious offense- leading to decade-long prison sentences and sometimes even execution. In turn, the imprisoned people were unable to provide for their families- which just reinforced the cycle of poverty and forced their children into stealing in order to survive.
A big social issue mentioned in the film was Cosette living with the Thenardiers. One might ask, why would Fantine send Cosette away? The truth is, it was very common in this time period for working-class women to send their daughters away to live with slightly better-off individuals who could provide the child with some education (for a fee).
There were many cultural differences shown in this movie I wasn’t aware of- for example, the practice of sending daughters away. In addition, I was unaware of the practice of the police dealing with the revolters in those days- I had no idea it was so brutal. I was also surprised by the truly horrible living conditions of the poor shown in the movie- I really had no clue they were that bad.
The issues this film deals with- poverty, criminality, and doing anything to survive- are definitely universal, and prominent even today, and even in the United States- with the wage gap and class gap that we are currently experiencing in our society. It was heartwarming, though, to see the sense of community, love, and kindness shown by Valjean, even in this brutal situation.
Les Miserables is available for checkout at the Mission Viejo Library.