Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead?
As Anne Hathaway cries out the classic “I Dreamed a Dream” in Tom Hooper’s new take on Les Miserables, the audience can feel Fantine’s devastation. The dark grittiness of her chamber, the deep breaths of her violator’s climax, the ringing of the coins, her anguished lament – no feeling person can help but share in the poor woman’s horror.
The scene, in its depravity, is a testament to the sacred character of the sexual act, one grace-filled moment in a film that serves as a grand witness to the sacred, the truth of human dignity, the joy brought by Christian conversion, and religion’s power as a force for good in society. In fact, the film acts as an apologia for a vigorous Christianity, rooted in faith rather than sentimentalism, for it is plain that Valjean’s many good deeds are founded in a deep life of prayer.
Yet this two-and-a-half-hour gem is tarnished by a four-minute comedic romp in the first quarter of the film. A mere twenty minutes after the filmmakers have cultivated a visceral appreciation for the evil of prostitution through Fantine’s devastation, we’re taken to the Thenardiers’ brothel for what could only be described as a celebration of the very same evil.
The scene depicts a kind and gentle Santa, decked out in miter and robe, lured into the brothel as he hands out gifts to children. He quickly begins necking with a prostitute and moments later we’re shocked with a two-second shot of the two jubilantly fornicating in the room upstairs: “Oh Santa!” the woman pants. As the song ends, we see Santa stumble out and pulled pants-less across the screen by his reindeer.
Of course, the Thenardiers’ brothel is repulsive in its own way, so the scene as a whole doesn’t necessarily come off as celebrating prostitution. But it becomes a celebration as we are meant to derive humor from Santa’s lark.
Fantine’s scene is beautiful in its wretchedness, bright in its darkness, sacred in its depravity. But this two-second, wholly gratuitous sex scene is dirty in its frivolity and sickening in its jubilation. Through the visual and auditory cues, we are told to laugh as Santa – the season’s picture of goodness, generosity and even a certain jolly innocence – is morally corrupted. Because we’re meant to find all of this funny, the scene wars against the story’s profoundly Christian ethos.
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On a symbolic level, the scene even seems to subvert the film’s overall message of spiritual conversion. The Bishop of Digne, who buys back Valjean’s soul with the gift of candlesticks, is the very symbol of conversion – so much so that in the end the film depicts him welcoming Valjean’s soul into heaven. A bishop restores Valjean’s appreciation of his own dignity, allowing Valjean to in turn bestow the same appreciation on Fantine, Cosette, and others. Yet in the scene with Santa, we have a miter-wearing image of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra, taking the exactly opposite path.
Despite the symbolism, the scene is so radically dissonant from the film’s overall Christian ethos that it seems it could not be a conscious effort at subversion. The filmmakers went out of their way to amplify the story’s Christian significance – think of Valjean’s gift of a Rosary to Javert, the beautiful shots of crucifixes bathed in light, or the profound depiction of Valjean’s entry into heaven in the final scene. In interviews, Hugh Jackman and Tom Hooper related that they had gone back to Victor Hugo’s novel to capture its spiritual depth.
So is there a certain schizophrenia here in the filmmakers and the audience-at-large? How else to explain that we could be so moved by the conversion story, that we could mourn with Fantine, and yet laugh at Santa’s spiritual corruption?
Rather, I think we have to describe it as a failure of wisdom, a failure to grasp the deeper realities at work in the story. Les Miserables can only be understood with a thoroughly Christian worldwiew, and the Santa scene is evidence that the filmmakers, despite their good intentions and technical mastery, missed it. They simply did not grasp the full import of the story’s ethos – that true conversion always entails a commitment to sexual purity. I would suggest that, caught up in our cultural attachment to sexual frivolity and Hollywood’s obsession with sexual humour, the filmmakers and general audience simply don’t have the eyes to see that this silly sex scene is so radically out of place.
Still, none of us are surprised that it’s there. Whether or not such a scene ruins the film for us, I think we all ought to at least marvel that Hollywood was able to produce so profoundly Christian a film. Though the gem is tarnished, the Gospel still shines through.