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Homage of such sweet sorrow

LES MISERABLES Claude Lelouch (18); Director Claude Lelouch has paid a Christmas card tribute to Hugo's epic novel. By Adam Mars-Jones
Les Miserables is Claude Lelouch's homage to Victor Hugo's novel, so it's odd that the only really successful part of the film should be a section where he steps out of Hugo's shadow and starts inventing on his own account. Lelouch plus Hugo equals a soft and compromised epic, full of melodramatic reversals and sentimental interventions, while Lelouch minus Hugo yields, surprisingly, something harsher and more cogent.

Lelouch's recasting of Hugo sounds at first almost post-modern: scenes from the original are cut into the story of the Fortin family over two generations, which provides variations on Hugo's themes. It turns out, though, that Lelouch regards Les Miserables as a sort of inventory of character types that recur down the years. Anyone who is both hospitable and inhospitable, for instance, is a "Thenardier", any orphan at such a person's mercy is a "Cosette". Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Jean Valjean in the dramatised excerpts from the novel, and also Henri Fortin, wrongly imprisoned, like Valjean, except that his incarceration begins in 1900. But Belmondo's major role in the film is as Fortin's son, also called Henri, who though illiterate falls in love with Hugo's novel. He's always asking people to read it to him, and comes to identify with its hero. He interprets all his experiences in that light. Lelouch makes a half- hearted attempt to link Fortin junior with the cinema - the first thing we're told about him is that he is as old as the cinematograph (born in 1895) and he is forever watching films, but they always turn out to be earlier versions of Les Miserables.

The cragginess of late middle-age doesn't detract from Belmondo's charisma, but our first sight of him in Les Miserables makes him look like an actor out of his depth. Lelouch starts the film at a moment of crisis in Hugo's story, when Valjean secedes definitively to the cause of virtue, except that he doesn't give us any of the context. All we see is Belmondo trying to cry, awash with glycerine, shouting every now and then for a little chimney sweep to come back and forgive him. Lelouch holds the shot, almost cruelly, for a long time. For the rest of the film, Belmondo can't be said to give nuanced portraits of three different people (the main differences between the characters are of hair colouring and style), but after an inert start he is never again less than dynamic.

Lelouch's visual style, ever since A Man and a Woman, has been notorious for prettiness. In Les Miserables he makes intermittent attempts to throw off his insipid reputation, and with some success. Watching his recreation of the Normandy landings, you could almost think you had the makings of an action director, if it wasn't for the insufferable romanticism of the music. Often in the film, Lelouch seems to be apologising with a sweet sound for a harsh image - not setting up an irony but trying to take away the nasty taste of reality. Perversely, Lelouch commissioned music to be ready before shooting began, using no fewer than five composers (notably Francis Lai and Michel Legrand). So we can't pretend that the anaemic soundtrack represents a last-minute failure of nerve: compromise is integral to Lelouch's vision.

In any case, his cinematic instincts remain lyrical, and whenever the story calls for a big moment he produces a lyrical one, whether it fits or not. When Fortin senior is put in "the cage", literally a cage, only tall enough for him to stand at one point, in dead of winter, the scene looks like a Christmas card for all that, with snow falling slowly and luxuriously. You can almost feel the plump flakes melting on your tongue.

Lelouch conveys the excitement of the Liberation from the perspective of the girls in a convent school, who have been having a cushy time of it, frankly, under the protection of a beaming Mother Superior who looks like a refugee from The Sound of Music. The camera tracks down the cloisters, revealing piano after piano in an endless line, each one occupied by an angelic girl hammering out "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". When parachutes start dropping on the school ground, the girls "ooh" and "aah" as if at a fireworks display.

Once in the film the prettiness of Lelouch's imagery does seem to have the required resonance. Andre Ziman (Michel Boujenah), a Jewish lawyer fleeing the Nazis with his wife, is betrayed by the guide who is supposedly leading them to safety in Switzerland. Wounded and separated from his wife, he looks up at the trees and we see what he sees: superimposed frozen branches spinning madly in and out of crisp focus, a rapturous image of despair and letting go.

When Ziman comes to, he has been rescued by a farmer and his wife. These are Lelouch's version of Hugo's Thenardiers, but he takes only the idea of inhospitable hospitality, and explores what is for him a highly uncharacteristic territory, full of moral ambivalence and black humour. At first the couple are intoxicated with their own bravery, and pleased simply to have a break from routine. The farmer jokes, as his wife brings Ziman a tray of good things to eat in the barn where they hide him, that he wouldn't mind being injured if he got a breakfast like that now and then. His wife doesn't quite know where to look. It helps that she's played by the great Annie Girardot, and her husband by Philippe Leotard, who makes the farmer's baffled and slow-growing jealousy rather real.

These Thenardiers live up to their own good intentions for a long time. Even when Ziman asks the farmer to go to Geneva and collect money from there, greed isn't a factor in his going. But when Ziman gives his hosts the money, and says he wants them to have the same sum every month, things begin to change. It isn't even that they spend much of the money - it sits there in a pile, in the ice-box of their fridge. Then when the farmer's wife makes a touchingly desperate pass at Ziman, and their rapport is spoiled, the money starts to matter after all. What if they persuaded Ziman to take out all his money? What if they told him that Hitler is in London? That he's invaded America? That Ziman may be the last Jew on earth?

Les Miserables is a long film, at nearly three hours. If Lelouch had only had the confidence to turn this section of his film into a self-contained chamber drama, he would have offered audiences a much more intense experience. He would also have found an unusual way of addressing the French bad conscience about the Occupation, through the story of these characters who are so slow to exploit the power of their situation, but who are unable in the end to be better than they are. The story of Ziman and the Thenardiers is worthy of a greater Claude than Lelouch, worthy of Chabrol.

n On release from tomorrow