Les what? Lel who?

A "Les Miserables" sidebar

In 1842, Victor Hugo wrote one of France’s greatest literary masterpieces. An epic tale about humanity, it centered on the travails of one man, Jean Valjean, whose life combined a desperate struggle to survive with an equally strong need to help the suffering and assert the dignity of man. Set against the events of the French Revolution, Les Miserables was a riveting story and an allegory for the whole of human experience.

The novel soon became a worldwide classic, and several versions of it have been adapted to film. Most recently, a highly successful live musical version has played on-stage in theaters around the English- speaking world.

Now, filmmaker Claude Lelouch has once again examined this rich story and has been inspired to reconsider it onscreen in a completely new form.

He explains, "I retained Victor Hugo’s love of chance and coincidence, but it is the spirit more than the letter of the tale that I wanted to render."

Crossed destinies, a narrative universe where individual adventures shape a collective destiny, and the resonance of history on personal life characterize Lelouch’s story as they did Hugo’s. "A popular story in a contemporary setting," says the filmmaker, "at the same time an homage to Hugo and yet totally original.

"It is completely natural that I turned to Victor Hugo and his Jean Valjean, this true and simple man who attempts to make his way through a hostile and complicated world. Modestly, I then tried to put myself in the shoes of a Victor Hugo who would have been born at the same time as the moving picture—someone who, inspired by the miseries of the 20thth century, would have told the story of Valjean, Thenardier, Javert, Marius, Cosette and all the others in order to affirm, once again, that the human being is the most beautiful of spectacles, even when life hands him a bad role."

Lelouch’s experience with Les Miserables goes back to his early years, when he was a five-year-old in 1942, fleeing a Nazi-occupied section of France with his mother, Eugenie, and a handful of falsified papers. As he and his mother attempted to pass through a police station on the border of the "safe zone," a controller appeared to have discovered their scheme. The price of safe passage was Eugenie’s gold watch.

"What a Thenardier he is!" Lelouch’s mother sighed when they were safely past, referring to the greedy innkeeper of Hugo’s story who profited from the misfortunes of others. That night, to put her young son to sleep, Eugenie began to tell him the story of Les Miserables, drawing from their present trouble examples to help little Claude understand the endless struggle between good and evil.

Later, during his military service, Lelouch read the book and, even later, as an adult, he read it once again, enjoying its scope and insight differently each time. Finally he felt that the time had come to create his own artistic response to Hugo’s work.

"Victor Hugo was 60 years old when he decided to publish his Les Miserables," reflects Lelouch. "I, myself, am going to reach that age soon. It was without a doubt the time to make the film."


After completing the script for Les Miserables, Lelouch was immediately faced with the task of finding an actor to carry the central role—someone who could embody all the hope, suffering, joy, crudity and nobility of human life in his face and behavior. What’s more, because of the allegorical nature of the movie, in which events repeat themselves from generation to generation, the lead character had to be able to play his own father as well, and to age several decades in the course of the story.

Lelouch found his Henri Fortin in Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Known primarily to American audiences as the cocky young thief who starred in "Breathless" opposite Jean Seberg, Belmondo is respected and beloved throughout Europe as a versatile, charismatic star of stage and screen.

Lelouch and Belmondo first collaborated in 1969, on "Un Homme Qui Me Plait," but not until 1987, when the director saw Belmondo perform in live theater, did he recognize the true scope of Belmondo’s talent. Impressed by his presence, Lelouch offered Belmondo the starring role in "Itineraire d’un Enfant Gate," which was critically acclaimed in France. Then, once again Lelouch saw Belmondo perform on- stage, this time in the lead role of "Cyrano," and this time he knew that he’d found his Henri Fortin.

To create the role of Fortin, who, in the course of the story, becomes a convict, a boxer, a thief, a war resister and, finally, a contented businessman, Belmondo often exchanged views with Lelouch. They were less concerned with following the script than with discerning the truth about "Fortin-Valjean," his intimate contradictions, his greatness and his pettiness.

Says Belmondo, "Fortin is an archetype, the incarnation of a man in perpetual insubordination, an oppressed man struggling against the circumstances that assail him, but ultimately morally victorious.

"Each day, Lelouch would begin by conditioning me, sort of like a boxer before entering the ring. And he would not give me the script until a few moments before the takes. This allowed me to arrive completely new, all excited and on my toes."

The Jewish Ziman family, who go from a luxurious and intellectually rich life (he is a lawyer, his wife is a famous ballerina and their daughter is a bright young schoolgirl) in pre-war France to desperate poverty and fear as they try to flee the Nazis and stay together, are played by French star Michel Boujenah, former prima ballerina Alessandra Martines, and by the young actress Salome.

Says Lelouch, "The Zimans are characters who do not belong to Victor Hugo, but who symbolize for me the misery of the twentieth century. As their lives intertwine with that of Henri Fortin, they cross class and religious boundaries to help one another survive, gaining a far richer understanding of the world for their trouble."

Monsieur Ziman spends an extraordinary segment of the story imprisoned in the cellar of a farm by a greedy French couple (Annie Girardot and Philippe Leotard), one of whom wants the money Ziman has stashed in Switzerland and the other of whom wants only Ziman’s cultivated attentions.

Says Michel Boujenah of his character, "Ziman is a mixture of ridicule and despair, courage and cowardice. It is this mixture that makes him human. In spite of all his faults, he finds a sort of redemption in the suffering he comes across. It is a very rich character; having such a role to play is a wonderful chance for an actor."

Alessandra Martines began her adult life performing for George Balanchine, first at the Zurich Ballet de l’Opera, then at the New York City Ballet. She next moved on to the Chicago Ballet and the Rome Opera Ballet. Martines made her film debut for Hungarian director Pal Sandor and also performed successfully as a stage actress and a telefilm star. After meeting Claude Lelouch when he cast her in a perfume commercial for television, Martines starred in Lelouch’s film "Tout ca...Pour ca!" before being cast in "Les Miserables."

Of her experience with Lelouch on the set, Martines says, "I can’t help myself from establishing a parallel between Claude Lelouch and George Balanchine. There is in the creation of both an extremely precise design and direction, all leaving you total liberty—or so you think! -- of interpretation. Claude comes on the set, whispers some words in your ear, and it is thanks to those few words that you will be perfectly right in the scene."

The role of the Ziman’s daughter, Salome, is played by Claude Lelouch’s own teenaged daughter, also named Salome, in an underscoring of the deeply personal nature of this story.

The sweeping cast of "Les Miserables" includes many of France’s best-known actors, such as Annie Giradot, who plays the greedy farmer’s wife—a modern Thernardier—and Philippe Leotard, who plays the even more base farmer. Giradot, whose now-classic performances include the role of Nadia in Luchino Visconti’s "Rocco and His Brothers," has starred for director Lelouch in many films, beginning with "Un Homme Qui Me Plait" and "Vivre Pour Vivre" and continuing through "Il y a Des Jours et Des Lunes," three years ago.

Clementine Celarie, known as a comic actress, here plays the tragic role of Henri Fortin’s mother, Fantine. Fantine, whose husband has been unfairly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, goes to work for a family of cruel and abusive innkeepers, the Guillaumes (more Thenardiers!), played by Rufus and Nicole Croisille. Soon, she is turned by them into a prostitute to earn her keep and support her young child. She finally commits suicide in despair.

Jean-Paul Belmondo’s own son, Paul Belmondo, plays a young Henri Fortin in a boxing scene. A young handyman at the Guillaumes’ inn many years after their deaths is named Marius, as in Hugo’s novel, and is played by Michael Cohen.

Sweeping Through History

"Les Miserables" mobilized enormous resources by French filmmaking standards. The production used 3,000 costumes in styles spanning more than a century, and was filmed on more than 50 locations across France. Production designer Jacques Bufnoir, who had previously collaborated with Lelouch on six films, took on the huge task of building sets from a broad spectrum of time periods, settings and locations. By the film’s end, Bufnoir had created 52 original sets.

Lelouch also turned to a group of musicians with whom he has collaborated many times over the year to create the musical context for his movie. These include composers Frances Lai and Michel Legrand, pianist Erik Berchot, lyricist Didier Barbelivien, and Philippe Servain. In a departure from conventional practice, he asked them to complete the music for "Les Miserables" before the picture was filmed, so that the score became another performer in each scene, "an emotional beacon," says executive producer Tania Zazulinsky. "At certain times, the characters become imbued with this magic potion."

Asserts Lelouch, "It was an indispensable contribution, a type of little shove. I often put on the music at the same time as I began the camera, using it as a supplementary guide, and that became the best director the actors could have had."

Recreating D-Day—and a Happy Ending

Many years after his sad childhood, Fortin returns to the Guillaumes’ inn as an adult, accompanied by three criminal accomplices, known as Addition, Blame and Bonnard (Ticky Holgado, Antoine Dulery and Jacques Bonnot). Fortin is pained by the memories of the treatment that sent his mother to her death, and determined to confront the brutal innkeepers who were responsible. But once he arrives he learns that the Guillaumes have died and their son and grandson, a much kinder duo, now run the inn.

After spending the night at the inn, Fortin’s group awakes to discover Allied ships lining the horizon. Though they are thrilled by this development, their happiness quickly turns to terror as they find themselves the target of a vicious shelling. Fortin once again demonstrates heroism in, ironically, defending the inn.

Lelouch was aided in the immense undertaking of filming this sequence by real life: the actual 50thth anniversary commemoration of D-Day was being assembled, and it included many period warships anchored on the coast. However, the film’s shelling sequence, which involved setting numerous explosive charges, could only be filmed once—it had to come off perfectly.

After many rehearsals, the cast embarked on what felt like an actual re-enactment of D-Day, including Fortin’s brave rescue of the innkeeper’s young son. Miraculously, the sequence went almost without a hitch.

The inn where Fantine and Henri live, "Chez Guillaume," was constructed from a 90-year-old fisherman’s house at the foot of the Viller-sur-Mers cliffs in northern France. The elaborate nature of this set was particularly important to Lelouch, since he planned to use this same setting a second and even a third time within the film. As events developed, however, the inn, though it was used again, became the site for an unexpected but emotional sequence in the story—and a new site for the film’s conclusion.

Then, to Lelouch’s dismay, only days later, a mysterious fire burned the inn, a huge and complex set containing innumerable props and pieces of technical materials, to the ground. In the midst of his shock, though, the director managed to film the destruction and, ultimately, to use it in the movie.

Initially, Belmondo’s character takes revenge on his past by buying, 50 years later, the inn where he and his mother suffered so many years before. But after the fire destroyed his set, Lelouch thought further about the scene. He realized that no man would choose to live where he had endured such a cruel childhood, and that he had to look elsewhere for an ending to "Les Miserables."

He reflects, "Everything is cruel before becoming simple. I told myself that if the inn burned after everything to that point had been filmed, it’s because it was time to change the set. In other words, the end of the film could not take place there.

"It was at that moment that the beach of Adam Isle came to my memory, where I had learned to swim as a child, where my parents had sent me to summer camp. I remembered that beach, its bathing huts, its pedal boats, and I said to myself, ‘If only it still exists!’ So I left in the middle of the night, arrived early in the morning, and jumped for joy upon seeing that it had not changed. Everything was exactly as I had remembered it!"

Lelouch re-wrote the ending of the movie so that Fortin, at the end of the war, is able to buy and run the inn at Adam Isle, establishing a safe place for the Ziman family to re-unite and for the surviving "miserables" to complete their story, with the now-grown Salome marrying Marius and the family happily celebrating.

"Today," says Lelouch, "I think that this ending in Adam Isle was destined, because it makes the story swing to another level. I feel that the hero swept his past aside to live something else, without regret.

"And at the same time, I am closer to Hugo’s novel because, at the end of the book, Valjean also finds peace, although it is at his deathbed. Hugo’s Valjean forgot his anger, and my Fortin dances to the happiness of his protégés, and it’s good.

"After thirty-four films, I am dedicated to filming hope."