Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Anti-Christ Elements in “Les Miserables” (2012)
A Christian friend in the movie industry, upon seeing the new “Les Mis” in advance, mentioned that someone opined that the last shot seemed to attempt a somewhat anti-Christian final message. I don’t really agree with that; it seems that sort of final shot is pretty much exactly what is called for by the “everybody reprise” finale chorus; moreover, the notion that those who had died in the course of the film would live on in some way (if that was his objection) is not inherently anti-Christ.
The real attempted strike against the obvious (and gorgeously portrayed, in the original show as written) Christian theme of the story was made at the very heart of the story. In the stage production, the climax of the play is Valjean’s prayer. Marius has been seriously wounded, Valjean risks his own life to haul him off the barricade and flees with him into the sewer. It is there, in the dark, filthy tunnel, in the literal shadow of death, that Valjean sends up his desperate prayer begging for the life of Marius, and offering his own in exchange. This is the climax of the story, and the climax of Valjean’s spiritual journey of Christian sanctification from bitter, selfish thievery to self-sacrificing Christian charitas (“greater love hath no man. . .”). The emotional punch of Valjean’s aria there is, in this context, quite literally breathtaking (as anyone who has seen the show and has any kind of functioning human heart can attest).
The first thing the filmmakers did to attenuate the power of this clearly Christian message of self-sacrificial love was to utterly obliterate the emotional impact by setting the prayer before the battle. In the movie, Valjean is singing this prayer while Marius is perfectly safe, sleeping peacefully. Not only does this rob the number of its desperate emotional punch, it makes Valjean’s (now-vague) pleadings seem a bit whiny. “Oh, he might get hurt; please let’s not let him get hurt or anything, or maybe die, or maybe whatever; stuff could happen, it could be bad; could that please maybe not happen?” Sheesh, Valjean; sure, he could be hurt, or he might be fine. The song that was a desperate plea to God for a man’s life, and an open offering of his own in exchange, is now reduced to an anxious father’s borrowing of trouble for his daughter’s boyfriend.
Worse, by having Marius wounded AFTER the prayer, the statement is made that the prayer was utterly ineffective. Rather than another demonstration of the sovereignty of God in this man’s life, instead he prays this prayer, then Marius is indeed wounded and they end up in the sewers, literally swimming in unimaginable filth.
You might think, “Well, they could create that kind of environment in the movie as you never could on stage, so maybe they just really wanted the sewers to be truly disgusting, that’s why they did that. And if the sewer was going to be that sort of experience, they really couldn’t have him singing in there, so they had to put the prayer elsewhere.” And indeed, it could be that, but for a couple of things.
For one, they did seem to be making some effort at creating a believable 19th century Paris. But anyone with any kind of serious wound who then was literally soaked in that kind of filth would surely never have survived in a pre-antibiotic era. Their own standards of verisimilitude (witness Fantine’s wrenchingly graphic descent into prostitution) thus argue against this.
If you still want to give them the benefit of the doubt—and it is true, filmmakers often seem to get carried away when it comes to violent or disgusting special effects these days—the filmmakers themselves have given us blatant, unmistakable signs that their treatment of the prayer was intended to be as anti-Christ as it could be (while yet retaining that song, which after all could never be cut, as it is one of the most recognized and popular of the show).
Now pulled from its proper emotional context, the emasculated song is shot in a setting where anti-Christ symbols are overarching and unmissable. For much of the song, Valjean is shown to be standing in front of a wall where a huge and obvious “all-seeing eye” is prominently displayed, and in fact given the most powerful position on the screen (above him and on the audience’s left, where Western viewers would look first to begin scanning, as a page of text). If you are a Christian, you might wish to interpret this as some kind of “God is watching over him” message—as I first tried to do—but again, with their apparent attention to historical accuracy, what on Earth is that big painted eye even doing on a wall there? And why not, again to be period-true, simply incorporate a recognizable Christian symbol instead? Indeed, the filmmakers have been willing to include at least some crucifixes in the film (more on that later); so why not—if your intention is to show the presence of God visually-- simply have a crucifix on the wall inside the room where Valjean is singing the song?
If we still weren’t sure that the eye was intended to be anything but “God watching over him,” the other shot prominent in the filming of the prayer makes firmly clear the filmmaker’s intent. This is the image of Valjean through a window pane in the shape of a pyramid, with an ambiguous shape atop it that, combined with the large and obvious single eye, leaves perfectly clear that these are anti-Christian marks upon this scene. To those “in the know,” they are clearly saying “Don’t worry, we get that his words sound Christian, but we negate their meaning.”
Still reeling from this, and wishing/hoping I had to be mistaken about it, we come to the “confession” scene, where Valjean tells Marius the lie he has been living. When we first see them together, there is a small crucifix on the wall behind them (all crucifixes in the film are tiny), and the entire shot is filmed at an angle. This stood out glaringly to me, but I thought, “well, that could be cool—they might be showing how Valjean’s lie has made his life unbalanced before God, and after the confession, they might return to this shot, now straight up, and show how confessing the truth allowed him to get ‘right’ with God.” But no, we see only the small, unstable Christian symbol, and after the confession, no sign of Christ at all.
As a further smack in the face against Valjean’s self-sacrifice for Marius, the filmmakers give us a little clip that apparently is only in there to show us that Valjean’s death in fact has nothing to do with Marius; we see this man whose practically super-human strength has been on display throughout the film suddenly falter and apparently have a heart attack lifting his chest of worldly wealth into a carriage. So, he hasn’t given his life for his fellow man; rather, his worldly strength just apparently stumbles to a rather ignoble end as he runs away from his daughter.
In the final scene, Valjean is dying in a convent. This is certainly an environment where one would expect to find Christian symbols in prominent display (we have a convent near our home, which I visit frequently; believe me, there is no room or hallway where one is not visually reminded of God’s relationship with us). However, in the stark stone room in this film, there is only a chair, some sort of table (an altar?) seen only in part, and two candle stands with lit candles, the light from one of which displays a clearly pyramidal shape.
My Christian friend concluded that, no matter what the filmmakers may have intended, they couldn’t really negate the statement in that last scene that “to love another person is to see the face of God.” True enough. But “new age” anti-Christ teaching is happy to equate people with gods—to appeal to original sin; quite literally, the oldest story in the book—to tempt us to believe that in fact somehow we are God or can be God; so simply making sure that nothing refers to Christ (and thus the reality of God in relationship TO people, rather than “people themselves are god”) is probably enough to make them quite comfortable with that statement, rendered “to love another person is to see the face of god-as-that-person-is-god-so-are-you-really.”
Still, while I cannot deny that the filmmakers did their level (un-level?) best to weaken the Christian message of this clearly Christian story, I must ultimately conclude, “it is to laugh.” The story is about redemption and self-sacrificial love, period. Anything you do to weaken that theme just degrades the quality of your storytelling of it (and indeed, they have done so with this adaptation, as the shape of the film now leaves ambiguous what exactly the climax even is), not the quality of the original story. God knows the end from the beginning, and those of us who know Christ know the end, too: God wins. The dragon can thrash his tail all he likes, and damage this or that material thing, but in the end, the Word is vastly more powerful. An excellent example is this film adaptation, which aside from these silly and gratuitous attempts to weaken the Christian message, otherwise contains some elements of very good filmmaking—the opening scene, especially, is stunningly well done with respect to transferring the sense of the play into cinema—and which, despite the filmmaker’s best(?) efforts to minimize its message, nevertheless continues to tell the story of one man’s redemption through Christ.