Last weekend I finally had the opportunity to see Jean-Pierre Améris’ recent film adaptation of one of my favorite French novels, L’homme Qui Rit by Victor Hugo. To say that I wasn’t completely giddy when I came home from work and saw the DVD on my kitchen counter would be the biggest lie I have ever told. My anticipation for this film began last fall, before I had read the novel, when I saw a post about it on a fanpage for Victor Hugo which mentioned a performance by Gerard Depardieu, who I had watched several times in my high school French class. The combination of the film’s basis on a book that I wad interested in reading and an actor who I knew and enjoyed gave me motivation to read the book and reward myself with the movie. Much like the case with Les Misérables last summer, I immediately fell in love with the novel. Though everyone knows that the book is always better than the movie, I could not wait to see this wonderful story acted out.
The story centers around a young man named Gwynplaine (Marc-André Grondin) who has a permanent smile as a result of mutilation by a group of child traffickers who call themselves the Comprachicos. When he is too old to be of any use to them, he is abandoned in a winter storm to die. That night he rescues a blind little girl from death and finds shelter with a vagabond named Ursus (Gérard Depardieu) who decides to raise the two children. As they grow up, Gwynplaine’s deformed face becomes the main attraction for a travelling show. He and his foster sister, Déa (Christa Théret) start a romantic relationship. Yes it’s a bit incest-y but given their situation I think it can be justified as Déa and Ursus are literally the only two people on the planet who see Gwynplaine as more than a deformed face. He knows that the people in the crowd laugh at him because he is ugly and thinks that Déa deserves someone better than him. However, her blindness allows her to see Gwynplaine as he is on the inside and nothing else because, “Seeing hides the truth.”
Trouble soon arrives in the form of a beautiful duchess (Emanuelle Seigner) who is attracted to Gwynplaine’s fascinating, disfigured visage. Though tempted, he rejects her. Though later he has almost no choice when he is informed that he is a member of the noble class. As a victim of class warfare, he finds the idea of power over the laws attractive and accepts his position as Le Marquis Clancharlie. After being initiated into royalty he has sex with the duchess and briefly enjoys his new lifestyle, blissfully unaware that the laughter behind his back continued. When the members of parliament laugh at his desire for class equality and the duchess breaks up with him, Gwynplaine decides to return to his adopted family.
- Though the physical appearance of Grondin’s Gwynplaine was downplayed from the book’s gruesome description, he convincingly sold our hero’s pain, which is absolutely essential when Hugo’s narration went to great lengths to ensure that readers felt sorry for him. Also fantastic were Depardieu’s curmudgeonly Ursus and Seigner’s conniving, sensual Duchesse Josaine. As much as I wanted to like Théret’s Déa, there were some things that she did that made it hard for me to believe that she was actually blind such as crawling through a hole in a fence and walking to the canal without any assistance. However she certainly looked the part. The adorable young actors who played the child versions of Gwynplaine and Déa reminded me of why I hope to marry a French man and have cute bilingual children in the future.
- As one can expect from an adaptation, many plot points were changed from the novel. For example, in the film Déa and Ursus visited Gwynplaine at his castle and witnessed the negative aspects of the royal life that he ignored while in the book they were convinced that he had died. Though these types of changes make a difference, I think they are justifiable because the novel’s focus on characterization and emotions rather than action makes it difficult to translate to film. Some changes that I did not find necessary, however, were the lengthening of my favorite line,”Laide? Qu’est-ce que c’est? C’est faire du mal. Gwynplaine fait du bien. Il est beau,” loosely translated, “Ugly, what is that? It is to do bad. Gwynplaine does good. He is beautiful,” nearly beyond recognition and the truncating of two speeches by characters that I found very important. I think that the the Duchess’ description of her interest in disfigured men would have aided her characterization. Since Gwynplaine’s speech to parliament made me cry like a baby when I read it in the book, the film version of it brought me close but was too short to give me its full affect.
- For me, the best indication of this film’s quality was the fact that my (non-Francophone) mother and younger sister enjoyed watching it with the aid of subtitles. Since these are the same people who gave me the all too well-known “Are we even related?” look when I talked about the story in the past, I considered converting them to be a fairly large victory on the part of all who made this adaptation possible.
- Overall verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.