Les Miserables and Joan of Arc

What is the very best way to use of the close-up? Is it best to save close-ups for the emotional arcs of a film, or to introduce a character? Can too many close-ups leave audiences feeling claustrophobic, and can too few prevent us from properly identifying with characters?

Much has been made of Tom Hooper’s controversial use of the close-up for Les Miserables. The lack of critical consent over the film’s close-ups could be a major reason why Hooper has been on few shortlists for directing awards, even as the film garners attention fin other categories. Hooper’s use of the close-up perhaps reaches its apex early on, in an extended shot of Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” a sequence that has been generally celebrated as the film’s strongest moment and ostensibly ensured Hathaway’s lock for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But Hooper’s isn’t the first filmmaker known for implementing the close-up liberally and controversially.

How does Hooper’s use of the close-up for a film musical compare to one of cinema history’s most famous close-up-structured films, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc?

Lavish Realism

There are several similarities between Hooper’s Les Miserables and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc that warrant such a comparison. Yes, both films feature an intensely emotive performance by a talented actress framed largely in close-up. Both films employ these close-ups to illustrate the physical and psychological struggle of an oppressed woman who is subjected to abuse and ultimately finds an ugly fate at the hands of French patriarchy. These close-ups intend to produce discomfort by forcing the performer to lose herself in a deep emotive place and making that place transparently evident to the audience in a way that conventional framing and editing techniques shy away from.

Both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Les Miserables convey “realism,” but not in the docu-fiction style of, say, Nanook of the North or Zero Dark Thirty. These films convey realism through heightened, almost exaggerated style that seeks out the dirt and ugliness that most films usually attempt to obscure. For Joan of Arc, Dreyer barred his actors from wearing make-up, and the result is staggering: in these extreme close-ups, you see every crease on the faces of Joan’s judges, and you see Joan’s facial flesh unmediated by human intervention, as if Maria Falconetti were re-animated and standing there right before you.

Les Miserables, while employing an operatic style without nuance that more or less fits the tone of Shonberg, Boublil, and Kretzmer’s music, revels in the filth and despair of 19th century French peasant life. Occasionally, fast cutting, baroque costumes, and wide-angle lenses work in tandem to deliver a sense of exaggerated realism, a socially decrepit atmosphere that’s ever-apparent because it’s overwhelming. There’s little doubt that Hooper’s intended use of the close-up was to marry this social realist aspect with the emotional weight that close-ups can convey.

And this is where the similarities and differences between these two films come most distinctly into play. Both Joan of Arc and Les Miserables are, perhaps paradoxically, elaborate and expensive productions that thoroughly implement the close-up. With Les Miserables, Hooper’s preferred use (or overuse) of wide-angle lenses to frame his close-ups seem to keep character and context in play.

Russell Crowe’s Javert meets Hugh Jackman’s Valjean, and as they address one another in close-up, the ship that Valjean had been ordered to pull in with his fellow prisoners remains visible. Other times, however, the close-up obscures context. It’s occasionally difficult to understand where characters are located geographically in relation to one another; and because Les Miserables’s backdrop consists of several important moments in 19th century French history, a means of lensing that would allow for more contextual elements to be included in the frame would ostensibly seem more appropriate.

Thus, Les Miserables proves difficult for those not already familiar with some form of the film’s source material (be it the musical, Victor Hugo’s book, or the historical events themselves). The barricade sequence, for instance, in which we find out at some point that the “other barricades have been lost” is an example where the relevant larger context of the film’s events are far from evident.

Building a Set No One Can See

With The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer did something that proved incredibly controversial. He had his crew build giant elaborate sets for the actors to perform in, but the majority of this set construction and art direction isn’t visible in the finished film as a result of the prominent close-ups throughout. Dreyer pursued such an elaborate spatial design not to show off the work of his crew, but to permit his actors to immerse themselves in their surroundings in a way that would place them in the emotional and physical space of the 15th century trial depicted during filming.

His efforts proved successful in terms of realizing his intent: Falconetti and the other actors give what remains some of the most striking performances in the history of cinema, almost all within the vulnerable, strange space of the close-up. Dreyer sought to achieve a similar affect on the spectator, not through the programmatic historical realism of building an era-accurate set, but because he captures and conveys a haunting, profound interpretation of the emotional immediacy of the events. In his own words, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc was a massive financial failure upon its release, and the French film company Pathé was furious that so much money was spent on work that wasn’t immediately visible in the finished film. But since the film’s resurgence in circulation after a near-perfect print was miraculously found in an abandoned insane asylum in Norway in 1981, The Passion of Joan of Arc has become an indisputably important work in cinema history, and a transcendent one at that, particularly because of its innovative and risky implementation of the close-up.

Why doesn’t Hooper’s Les Miserables achieve the same result? All the other elements are there: dedicated performers, elaborate set design, social realism, French histories of abjection, etc. Perhaps the answer is as simple as the presence of sound. When one listens to recordings of stage performances of Les Miserables, the grandiosity of a thoroughly envisioned theatrical performance is evident in the music alone. If Les Miserables is about heightened emotion, then maybe it’s about the overt display of that emotion, not the intimate conveyance of it that the close-up would imply. Perhaps the visual equivalent of Les Miserables’s numbers is not the close-up, but the long shot, where context, design, and numbers as commanding as “Look Down” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” would find their fitting place (the best Hollywood musicals, after all, rarely used close-ups).

Perhaps “I Dreamed a Dream” works as an exception to the prevailing style of the rest of the film; such a song invites intimacy, detail, even subtlety (for Les Mis). However, if the camera weren’t so close to the actors’ faces elsewhere, there might have been less restrained, more theatrical performances from the non-Hathaways.

Joan of Arc, by contrast, has neither sound nor music (except added accompaniment). I can’t imagine the film any differently. Joan of Arc is so brilliant, in part, because we don’t need to hear any voices to understand exactly what Joan is going through. The addition of sound could make such an experience too direct. Instead, with the absence of spoken language, Dreyer allows Falconetti’s face to speak for itself.

Perhaps the close-up works best, and most, often, when the look on a performer’s face speaks volumes that words couldn’t possibly replicate.


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