The BBC’s new, no-singing Les Misérables (2019) just wrapped up airing in the States on PBS. I’ve heard a lot of complaints that it’s slow, but I really liked it! Well, I really liked the first half, and was okay with the second. Partially that may be because I’m not really in the mood to watch happy people being happy, but I also liked that they took the time to go into aspects of the story that don’t usually make the cut.
I think what I most enjoyed was that the first few episodes really fleshed out Fantine’s story. She’s the unwed factory worker who is lured into a relationship by a cad and left with a child, Cosette, who she has to leave with the Thénardiers to raise so she can work. In the musical, which I spent most of my high school years ADORING, Fantine’s story starts near the end. Here, we get to see the transition from happy “grisette” (Parisian working girl), her seduction and eventual abandonment by a caddish, well-to-do fuckboy, and then her struggle to support her daughter as her life deteriorates.
I have to say, watching these episodes was very interesting in light of current political developments, like the passage of a draconian anti-abortion law in Alabama. Here’s where I want to remind y’all that Frock Flicks is a feminist publication, because honestly, this story provides an excellent example of what happens when women aren’t in control of their own bodies. Do I think Fantine should have aborted her child? Of course not, that would have been Fantine and Fantine alone’s decision, I can’t make that for her. But when women live in a society that offers them no choices and no bodily autonomy, and in fact penalizes them for taking control of their bodies and lives, WOMEN AND CHILDREN SUFFER.
Women NEED access to safe and easily available contraception, so that they can make conscious choices of if and when to have children. When they don’t, CHILDREN HAPPEN. People have been having sex since the dawn of time, and they’re NOT GOING TO STOP NOW. You can preach about abstinence all you want, but the fact is that the reality is SEX, which equals PROCREATION. Women (and men) have been preventing pregnancy since time began, and women have been inducing abortions (and frequently dying in the process) since time began. None of this is going to stop. When women can CONTROL THEIR OWN BODIES AND LIVES, children are wanted and a whole lot less suffering occurs.
Of course, novelist Victor Hugo doesn’t go into contraception and abortion in Les Mis. But their absence is fundamental to the story. If Fantine could have just had a diaphragm, some condoms, the pill, or an IUD, Les Mis would have been an incredibly different story. If Fantine had the choice to say, “You know what? I can’t support a child” and choose to have a safe abortion, Les Mis would have been a very different story. If Fantine had lived in a society that didn’t judge women for getting pregnant (when men are VERY MUCH involved), and actually gave a shit about HUMAN BEINGS including women and children and supported them on a literal, practical level (food, housing, healthcare, education), Les Mis would have been a kinder, gentler, happier story.
Instead, Fantine is young and impressionable, gets lured in by a jerk of a guy who takes no responsibility for his own actions, and is left to bear the burden. THAT is what a society without access to safe contraception and abortion looks like. It looks like poverty and child neglect and death.
I’d like to quote an excellent post by Femislay on Instagram, who wrote:
“Do you ever wish there were more words in the English language? Because you experienced this feeling and there’s no words to describe it. But all these people who have never experienced that feeling have taken it upon themselves to tell you how you feel and what you experienced. The best way I can find to describe this is a grateful sadness. Because it was sad. You were pregnant but you didn’t want to be a mother. And you lay on the table and you looked at the ultrasound and you knew what you were supposed to feel. You were supposed to be elated and you would turn up to see your partner smiling down at you and you would both cry. And you were crying. But you were alone in the room with the doctor and you were crying because you couldn’t believe the shit you had gotten yourself into. And you were sad when the doctor asked if you wanted to keep the ultrasound. But you said yes and you took the photo and put it in your wallet where it is today. But holy hell were you grateful. Because that day the only thing you left the clinic with was that photo, your sister who yelled at you the night you took the test but still made the appointment and drove you to the clinic, and the pill you were to take later that day. And that was last year. And this is 2019. And you still haven’t found the words to describe your feelings that day — because you were crying. But you were also telling yourself – thank god that’s over thank god that’s over. Because the fact that it was that easy. That is was over in one day. That you had that support. That you had someone to buy you the test. Make you take the test. And take it again. That you had someone to loan you money. Drive you to the clinic. And drive you home. That it was that easy. It was like the first miracle of your life. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was progress. And it was how you should be — you taking control of your life and your body. And you knowing that no matter how many people (see cis men) tell you what you did was wrong, you know that feeling. Choosing that grateful sadness was the greatest choice you ever made.”
A few other thoughts on the production itself before I get to the costumes:
Costumes in Les Misérables
“’As a BBC production there are always people who are very keen to keep things exactly of the period,’ she says, noting that some of the dye colours might not have been as vivid at the time, or that synthetic textiles may substitute natural ones occasionally, to no detriment. ‘It’s important, too, to make sure that it doesn’t look stuffy, and that it’s visually interesting for a prime time audience. You want it to not upset people, or distract from the story, but the costumes also need to be striking and keep their attention. It’s all about getting that balance right’” (Les Misérables: how Olivia Colman, Lily Collins and Ellie Bamber were transformed with ‘punky, romantic’ costumes).
To those people at the BBC who are so very keen to keep things exactly of the period, I say:
There’s a really interesting interview with Jacqueline Fowler, the make-up and hair designer (Jamestown, Gunpowder, War & Peace, The Scandalous Lady W, the very first episode of Poldark, The Crimson Petal and the White), at Make-Up Artist Magazine. She gives us a lot of interesting tidbits on an aspect that’s integral to the overall look, but not usually highlighted in terms of press. For example, she talked about Valjean’s (Dominic West) changing look:
“The story is set over a big span of several years, and because we were jumping in and out of different episodes all the time, I had to keep things relatively simple. I played around with things like Dominic’s sideburns for example, to reflect his status, where they’re a bit more wiry and wooly at one point, but when he later up-markets himself, he cuts the sideburns down. I had to keep his hair pretty much the same, except for his dying days, which was shot near the end, so I was able to shave his hair almost off, so it was quite a transformation” (Crime and Punishment).
Talking about Lily Collins as Fantine, Fowler discusses both making Fantine look real and the critical element of the tooth removal:
“It was a massive design process to create that look, starting in episode one where she’s pretty but not quite getting the fashion right. The style is playful and fun, but it’s not the high fashion of Paris, so I really wanted to get that distinction across. It’s quite a moving bit in the story and Lily was very brave, and it was nice to do all the different looks for her — from this beautiful girl in episode one who doesn’t have a care in the world, to her final decline. Obviously, we cast Lily’s teeth as well. We could have done it the old-fashioned way by blacking out her teeth, but I ended up having some green-screen teeth made instead, which we used on special occasions when we would see the teeth and green screen” (Crime and Punishment).
Looking at other characters, Agertoft told The Telegraph that she wanted to avoid copying Paco Delgado’s costumes from the 2012 musical version of Les Misérables when it came to the Thénardiers:
“If there was anything that I wanted to avoid from the film it was coming anywhere near that [portrayal] because this version is so rooted in reality, it really wouldn’t work for us. I loved Helena’s take on it, with Sacha Baron Cohen as this theatrical double act wearing those visual distinct costumes which completely exaggerated the way that they moved and behaved. So for Olivia [Colman], I was very relaxed and I didn’t want to make something elaborate for her. I wanted to give her something as simple as possible, a seemingly boring dress, but one that gave her the posture to move as she wanted to as that character. She was the easiest one to dress” (Les Misérables: how Olivia Colman, Lily Collins and Ellie Bamber were transformed with ‘punky, romantic’ costumes).
Looking at teenage Cosette, I thought she was dressed very well BUT HER HAIR. When she leaves the convent, she’s wearing a 10-years-out-of-date dress and very practical coat and bonnet:
She tells pops she’s going to need an updated wardrobe, and there’s a nice scene where they go to a dressmakers’ and Fantine gets to buy various fashionable gowns:
Most of her dresses were very pretty and perfect for the year of 1832, including appropriate underwear. Actress Ellie Bamber told Stylist, “I wore a corset but not a proper one; it wasn’t all bones. I had a wooden block all the way down my chest like a plank and thinner bones around the side” (Les Miserables’ Ellie Bamber talks corsets, Olivia Colman and what makes her angry), which sounds like she’s describing the kind of corsets worn in this period, which were more lightly boned (and had a busk at the center front) than later styles.
Cosette does manage to get her hair up for one or two scenes:
But most of the time her hair is worn down to make her look young and innocent and pure. Which, you know, I could handle, EXCEPT THAT THEY’VE GIVEN HER THE KIND OF BEACHY WAVES THAT NO HAIR DOES ON ITS OWN WITHOUT A CURLING IRON.
Luckily they put her hair up and gave her a nice dress for her wedding — and even a bonnet! Agertoft told The Telegraph what seems to be the costume designers’ constant refrain when it comes to bonnets, “We’ve kept bonnets off the women quite a lot of the time, even at moments when they would have worn them then. Why? Because they can very much get in the way” (The inside story of the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables… by the man who sexed up War and Peace).
Finally, I wanted to note that David Bradley (aka Walder Frey!) as Gillenormand wears a wig, both in the 1815 and 1832 scenes. There’s very little chance even a royalist aristocrat would be wearing a wig by 1832, but it makes a good visual connection to this royalist/pre-French Revolutionary sympathies, so it worked for me.
What did you think of the new Les Misérables?