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‘Les Miserables’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 03, 1995

French filmmaker Claude Lelouch's "Les Miserables" is neither a remake of Victor Hugo's novel nor an adaptation of the popular musical, but a turgid three-hour epic that parallels the 19th-century tale. Now set in France between 1900 and 1950, this tedious but beautifully staged costume melodrama follows the exploits of Henri Fortin (weathered Jean-Paul Belmondo), a boxer-turned-mover whose big heart and brawny build earn him the nickname Jean Valjean.

After Lelouch traces the character's early history and that of his unjustly imprisoned father (also played by Belmondo) in an hour-long flashback, the writer-director finally gets to the heart of his story. In this two-hour section, Fortin comes to the aid of the Zimans, a Jewish family trying to escape the Nazis by fleeing to Normandy. When they are turned in by collaborators, Fortin hides their daughter, Salome (played by Lelouch's daughter Salome), in a convent and later helps them make it to the Swiss border.

During the ride, the Zimans pass the time by reading "Les Miserables" to the grateful Fortin. "There are only two or three stories in the world, and we must all live them over and over," observes Ziman, neither the first nor the last character to do so. It's almost as if Lelouch were making excuses for helping himself to another artist's work. But another oft-reiterated phrase—"These are miserable times"—better expresses the feeling one has while sitting through this earnest extravaganza.

Though Lelouch has added many complications to Hugo's original, he still hasn't enough to fill three hours, so he's created more subplots, added more flashbacks, done more crosscuts and spliced in more clips from older film versions of the tale. If it were shorter, we wouldn't know what misery really feels like.

Les Miserables is rated R for violence and nudity and is in French with English subtitles.

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