Clocking in at around 4 ½ hours, Raymond Bernard’s epic 1934 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel was originally released as three separate films – apparently you could buy tickets to all three at once and see them all on the same day. The tripartite structure works very well, breaking the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Harry Baur) and his pursuit by the remorseless Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel) into manageable and distinctive sections. The pace is leisurely, rippling out to include various important subsidiary characters – the wronged woman Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the evil Thenardiers, the revolutionary idealist Marius and the street urchin Gavroche in the third.
Watching the whole thing on Blu-ray, it feels less like a piece of cinema from the ’30s than a piece of television from the ’60s. Throughout, Bernard pioneers what would later become familiar TV techniques – shooting in long takes, eschewing panoramas and long shots in favour of medium shots and two shots (presumably with an eye to economy) and using wobbly hand-held close-ups for a riot scene. On the whole, it’s an approach that works very well, even though you feel the pinch of the tight budget in the street battle scenes of Part 3.
Although each of the sections has its dramatic highlights, the centrepiece of the trilogy is Part 2, The Thenardiers. Set mainly in a seedy tenement, this Doré-esque picture of Parisian low life shows Bernard’s direction at its most stylish and assured, and it’s build around a wonderful performance by Charles Dullin as the sly, Fagin-like Thenardier, a dodgy innkeeper turned to a life of crime. Anyone who admires David Lean’s Dickens adaptations (made well over ten years later, and surely influenced by Bernard’s example) will respond warmly to the film’s eye for a grotesque underworld of paupers and thieves. Among a generally excellent cast, Harry Baur is a very weighty Valjean – he conveys a sense of the character’s physical strength in several very credible scenes, including a gritty and long drawn out fight. Occasionally there’s a certain lack of subtlety, but on the whole Bernard’s sincerity and feeling for authenticity win the day.
Drawn from several different sources, the 4K transfer is variable, but at its best – as in the expressionistically shot courtroom sequence in Part 1, and most of Parts 2 and 3 – it is stunningly crisp and immediate, with even higher resolution than on the recently released 4K restoration of Le Jour se Leve. The scene early on in Part 2 for instance, where the young Cosette has to brave the scary woods at night to collect a pail of water, shimmers with barbed shadows and flickering moonlight, and later on the scene where the grown-up Cosette meets her beau Marius in the Luxembourg Gardens has a beautiful, airy, dappled quality to it. In moments such as these, it’s hard to imagine a movie of this vintage looking better.
Extras include an 11-minute chat with the director, in which he talks about eloquently about working on the script and casting the actors (the boy who plays Gavroche was a caretaker’s son who later become the doorkeeeper at a bistro) and the pain of editing the film down later from three parts to two. There are also two talking head pieces, one with a French film historian (18 minutes) and the other with a French academic (22 minutes). We learn more about previous silent movie versions of the book, the various members of the cast and Bernard’s meticulous historical research.