Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Mis: Right and Left

A lot of the early reviews of Les Miserables I read mentioned the way Tom Hooper frames many of the songs: The actors appear in extreme close up, usually occupying the right side of the screen and leaving the left side empty. At first, it's a strange and seemingly arbitrary choice. Since I had read about it beforehand, I paid extra attention to the composition of those shots while I watched the movie this afternoon, and far from being arbitrary, there is a definite purpose to the right/left framing.

The singing-on-the-right becomes noticeable early on in the film, especially in Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Through much of the song, she occupies the right half of the screen, and in addition to that, her face is turned to the left of the camera and her head is inclined upward, as if she's singing to someone just off-screen. This pattern and posture is repeating in Hugh Jackman's early song, as well as young Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud."

When Valjean (Jackman) visits Fantine in the hospital and promises to save her daughter, and later when he arrives to rescue Cosette from the Thenardiers, the framing changes: Fantine (and Cosette and the Thenardiers) are again on the right, looking left and up, while Valjean appears on the left of the screen, looking right and slightly down. Of course, one reason for this compositional change is because it balances the screen (the way most close-up conversations are shot in movies).

I think there's more to it, though. Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" is a prayer for someone, anyone to save her from what her life has become. Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud" serves the same thematic purpose. And in response to both of these songs, Valjean appears on the left side of the screen, as if he is arriving to answer the women's prayers.

Once I noticed that right/left pattern, I started looking for it in Les Mis's subsequent songs. There are many more right-side-prayers than left-side-answers throughout much of the film, but the pattern remained consistent. It becomes even more noticeable in the final act songs, as many of the characters' prayers are finally answered.

I'll point out what I think are the two most important examples. (Spoiler warning if you somehow don't already know what happens at the end of Les Miserables.)

When Valjean tells Marius that he has to run away so that Marius and Cosette can be safe together, freed from the ghosts of Valjean's past, he is on the right side of the screen, and Marius is on the left, listening. A crucifix is visible in the background of the room, as if Valjean is the penitent seeking forgiveness, and Marius the priest offering absolution.

When the Thenardiers crash Marius and Cosette's wedding, Marius starts to throw the dastardly pair out, but before he can, they reveal a secret: Valjean was the man who rescued Marius on the night the barricades fell. It's the answer to a prayer Marius has been praying since he awoke and sang "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." During this conversation, Marius is on the right of the screen, asking questions; the Thenardiers are on the left, providing answers.

In the finale, several characters harmonize on these lines:

"And remember
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of god"

This idea is at the center of Les Miserables, and it's one that the right/prayers-left/answers framing reinforces throughout the film.

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