This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Books reach some readers at the very core; they influence the way their lives are lived, and the way they see themselves. "Les Miserables" is a film about such a book and reader and, because it is long and sprawling like Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, is about many other things as well. It contains scenes drawn from the novel, modern scenes that parallel the novel, and scenes which, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with the novel, including a great deal of material about the Nazi occupation of France and the persecution of the Jews.
The movie is not an adaptation of the long-running stage musical that has its own film version announced more or less annually, so far without result. This "Les Miserables" has been written, produced and directed by Claude Lelouch, who uses the legendary Jean-Paul Belmondo, now 63, in several modern roles, and even that of Hugo's hero Jean Valjean. Because the settings behind each story are so different, Belmondo doesn't resort to makeup tricks to change character, but simply portrays them, somehow projecting their different personalities onto his famously elastic face.
The result is a work that gives meaning to the word "epic." Shot in generous widescreen and running for almost three hours, the movie is a universe with room to move around in. It begins in 1900 with a story loosely inspired by Hugo's Valjean, who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. In the more modern version, a chauffeur (Belmondo) is wrongly accused of the death of his aristocratic employer, who committed suicide. He is imprisoned, and while his family starves and his wife is driven to prostitution, the chauffeur attempts to escape in a series of heartbreaking scenes, including one in which he swims an underwater passage and climbs a well, only to have to make an instant decision about his fate.
The chauffeur's son, Roger Fortin, grows up to be a boxer, becomes the French champion, and later drives his own moving van.