Les Miserables: French Pot au Feu

Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
(PG-13, 158 min.)

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”  Victor Hugo

This film has the lyrical beauty of an opera, but with a cleaner, more compelling narrative and characters of unusual complexity. And not a strutting baritone or corseted prima donna in sight!

We are also spared the artifice of the typical musical, where the narrative is broken when the characters cease talking and burst inexplicitly yet all too predictably into song.  Les Miserables pursues the bold course of opera, where all exchanges are sung.  Yet, vocal beauty takes a back seat to the meaning of the words.  Often a hoarse voice, almost a whisper, conveys the meaning while sacrificing harmony.  It is a welcome relief to operatic passages where the plot seems sometimes nothing more than narrative padding setting up virtuoso performances.

Of course, it helps that the source material is one of the 19th century’s greatest novels by the celebrated Victor Hugo.  And coming in at over 1400 pages in the English translation, one of the longest as well.  Somehow, the film manages to catch the essence of the characters and plot without ever seeming disjointed or choppy.

Quite a bit of that is due to the excellence of Hugh Jackman in the main role of Jean Valjean, the Frenchman jailed for stealing a loaf of bread and forced into 20 years of servitude for his many escape attempts.  Those of us who remember Jackman for his role of Wolverine from the X-Men franchise, or perhaps as the romantic hunk, Drover, in 2008’s Austraila may be surprised with the depth of his performance. Let alone his singing skills.

As the early convict, he is little more than a beast, certainly an immensely strong one, but made brutal and primitive by his years at slave labor.  His face is gaunt and almost unrecognizable, set hard and bitter with the meanness of his existence.  Yet it in this bereft carcass that Hugo centers his moral questions.

Caught for stealing the silver of the a kindly bishop who has given him food and shelter for the night shortly after his release, Valjean is certain he will be thrown back into prison, but the bishop tells the police he has freely given the silver to Valjean, and then tosses his finest pair of candlesticks into his burlap sack as well.  But the real gift the bishop gives Valjean is his soul, which he urges him to reclaim.  Most of the film recounts his efforts to do just that.

But even as Valjean remakes himself into a wealthy factory owner and town mayor, he is pursued by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose obsession is to capture this man who has thrown away his probationary papers and claimed a new identity. Although Javert is Valjean’s Nemesis, he is not a standard villain but a complex character driven by a self-created moral certitude that ultimately undoes him.

Like her employer, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s factory workers, is plagued by the effects of a single transgression.  Abandoned after a brief affair, she struggles to take care of her child, Cosette, working at his a factory to make ends meet, but she is dismissed when her foreman learns she is an unmarried mother, although it is actually his humiliation at her rebuffs rather than moral outrage that propels her ouster.

Fantine sells first her hair and then her teeth to make ends meet, finally falling into prostitution, and a fatal illness. Her vocal lament, “I Dreamed a Dream,” recounts her poignant tale, memories “when men were kind,” before “the tigers came at night” to “turn her dream to shame.”  Anne Hathaway wrings the longing and betrayal out of the lyrics in what many believe is an Oscar worthy performance.

The production numbers are crisp and flawless, especially the comic relief of the sleazy inn run by Madame and Monsieur Thenardier  (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), where the light-fingered hosts rob their guests blind in choreographed thievery set to music.

Equally stunning are separate songs sung simultaneously, each character’s thoughts part of a three part harmony almost like a fugue.

It is sad that so few films today ask what it means to be human, or explore our fleeting happiness and fragile dreams.  Instead, we content ourselves with action, thrills, and vulgarity in garish Hollywood celluloid.  Take a break from those excesses and treat yourself to this musical masterpiece.

–Kathy Borich



Film-Loving Foodie

Given Valjean’s hardscrabble existence, often on the move to keep one step ahead of Inspector Javert, most of his meals would be simple.  This French dish would suit him and Cosette very well.  It takes only one pot and there is little risk of burning the dinner.

The French Boiled Dinner named Pot au Feu  or “Pot in the Fire”  is rich with herbs, hearty vegetables, and features both chicken and chuck roast.  Just the thing to warm on the fire on a cold and lonely night!

Our recipe comes from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook.

Bon Appétit!

French Pot au Feu or “pot in the Fire”

French Boiled Dinner

In this traditional recipe, the roast or poultry is stewed in its own broth with herbs, spices, and a healthy crop of vegetables.   When done, the beef and vegetables are served separately from the broth, which is served steaming hot as a first course. 

1 1/2-pound beef boneless chuck roast 

1 marrow bone (optional)

8 black peppercorns

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 bay leaf

4 cups water

1 1/2  pounds chicken drumsticks

10 to 12 small carrots

10 to 12 small onions or 3 large onions, cut in fourths

3 medium turnips, cut into fourths

4 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces

3/4 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

Place beef, marrow bone, peppercorns, 1 teaspoon salt, the thyme and bay leaf in Dutch oven.  Add water. Heat to boiling; reduce heat.  Cover and simmer 1 hour.  Add chicken; cover and simmer 1 hour longer.

Add carrots, onions, turnips, and celery; sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper.  Cover and simmer until beef and vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes.  Remove chicken and vegetables to warm platter; slice beef.  Strain broth; serve in soup bowls as a first course.

10 to 12 servings.

Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook.