To quote the Criterion liner notes, “It was Bernard who proposed adapting Hugo’s hefty book into three parts—“Une Tempête sous le crane” (“Tempest in a Skull”), “Les Thénardier” (“The Thénardiers”), and “Liberté, liberté chérie” (“Liberty, Sweet Liberty”)—to be screened as separate feature-length films, thus allowing him to include as much of the original narrative, characters, and details as possible. And because of the great success of his previous film, the forty-two-year-old director got the screen time (nearly five hours) and resources he needed to realize his vision. As his coscreenwriter he again chose critic and playwright André Lang, with whom he had so successfully brought Wooden Crosses to the screen. The influential Swiss composer Arthur Honegger gave the film its majestic score, later so admired by Miklos Rosza and Charles Koechlin and still available on CD in the United States today. And for his cameraman Bernard selected the German-born cinematographer Jules Kruger, who had shot not only Bernard’s first sound film, Faubourg Montmartre (1931), but also Abel Gance’s astonishing silent epic Napoleon (1927).
“Kruger’s penchant for uniquely styled and canted framing, highly influenced by German expressionism, was perfectly complemented by the dazzling art direction of Bernard’s exclusive production designer, Jean Perrier, who fully re-created sections of nineteenth-century Paris on exterior locations (the set was built near the southeastern resort town of Antibes), in addition to incorporating lovely matte paints and breathtaking miniature work.”
Bernard’s Les Misérables was never seen in the U.S. in its original form, although even in a shortened feature version it was well received. Even in France, it existed only in truncated form for decades. It was finally restored in the 1970s, toward the end of the director’s life. There are still missing scenes, and some grainy shots were obviously taken from the only surviving materials. The restoration opens with a likeness of Victor Hugo and this quote: “So long as poverty and misery still exist on earth, works such as this may not be in vain.”
Some parts of the extended film play better than others, and the denouement is not as effective as one might like. Javert’s suicide is especially abrupt, at least in this surviving print. But there are other passages that are simply magnificent. I won’t soon forget the staging, setting, lighting, and astonishing hand-held camerawork for the storming of the barricades. (It isn’t hard to draw a through-line from Gance’s Napoleon to this vision of Les Misérables.)
When the three-part feature was released on DVD in 2007, Dave Kehr wrote in The New York Times, “This is very likely the best adaptation of Hugo’s novel, and certainly the best I know (though I would be curious to see Riccardo Freda’s version, made in Italy in 1947). That’s partly because Mr. Bernard avoids any trace of the literary; this is a film that vigorously expresses itself through performance and visual style.”
If, like me, you have never experienced this milestone in French filmmaking, I urge you to do so. I look forward to watching Bernard’s Wooden Crosses as well—France’s “answer” to All Quiet on the Western Front.
Scenes from Raymond Bernard's Les Misérables