Les misérables directed by Robert Hossein, from an adaptation he wrote with Alain Decaux, is an absolute bitch to find in an English-subtitled version. At least, I couldn't find one, after months of looking, and thus I was obliged to watch it in French, a language that I'm not as good with as I used to be. And I used to be far from fluent enough to follow every little turn of any movie that wasn't based on a novel I know by heart. So at a minimum, I am certain that I missed some subtleties, though this is by no means the talkiest of Les misérables films, and I am promised that its dialogue closely tracks to the language of the book.
This particular adaptation has the distinction of being the very first that was made in the wake of the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg that has been the most visible iteration of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel by far in the interceding decades; it is even more distinct in that Hossein was also the director of the first French stage production of that musical, two years prior. Taken together, those facts clearly suggest that this film was consciously the "musical knock-off" movie version, going so far as to copy the distinctive typeface of the stage version, and includes a cameo appearance by the music Schönberg wrote for the song "Le faute à Voltaire", a verse already present in Hugo's book.
(It's familiar to English-speaking audiences as "Little People", and if I may drift rather badly off the point: anyone whose exposure is strictly to the English version of the show, I can forgive them for despising this number, as I have always done and continue to do. But the immensely superior quality of the French original is so profound as to beggar description).
If the musical was the excuse for this Les misérables, though, it doesn't otherwise cast its shadow over what is, for the most part, a pretty terrific adaptation of the book and damn solid movie in its own right, neither of which conditions necessarily apply to most cinematic tellings of the story. I'll admit that I don't know Robert Hossein from a hole in the ground - his career as an actor is considerably more impressive than his work behind the camera - but based on the evidence of this one film, he knew a thing or five about making a movie. This Les misérables easily threads both of the needles that challenge any and all adaptations of the book: capturing its literary conceit, dense plot, and symbolic representation of society without getting airless and self-involved (the flaw which damned the last French theatrical version before this, the Technirama epic from 1958); and navigating the torrid melodrama of 19th Century plotting without turning into something too ripe to survive the physical realism of cinema. Overall, this is an unexpected naturalistic adaptation, in fact, more concerned with depicting something like the actual textures and sounds of 1820s and 1830s France than most literary adaptations of any stripe, and if that naturalism isn't quite as invigorating visually as the Expressionist elements in the 1934 French or 1935 American versions, it's surely light-years better than the artificial staginess of most other adaptations. Hossein drops the ball a little bit, at key moments: the first assault on the student barricades is done in relentless slow-motion, a saccharine gesture to begin with, but even so, surely better-suited to the second assault; and the final scene, which is changed from Hugo to be even darker and more painful (unnecessarily so, I might add), and involves some indefensibly ridiculous touches of exactly the same melodrama that the rest of the three-hour film has comfortably dodged.
A few weak spots, even one as precariously located as that final scene, simply isn't enough to seriously challenge the effectiveness of a film where so much goes so right: the beautifully-lit rural towns in the first third, the efficient, silent-film approach to quickly demonstrating the degradation of prostitute Fantine (Evelyne Bouix), the terrific grain of the film stock that gives all of the urban settings a layer of tactile, almost documentary-like realism, without the showy artifice of documentary camerawork. The emotional tenor of all the scenes plays true, and the structure is at least as self-contained and satisfyingly dramatic as any version post-'34 that I can think of; especially in the early scenes, the flow works unusually well, skipping over holes in the narrative without leaving their absence feeling obvious, bookending the entire movie with a terrific pair of almost-matching lines (my French is at least good enough to translate "You are free" and "Now, you are free"), and including the best dramatisation of the coin stolen from le petit Gervais (Jacques Blal) as I have found.
It's also, across-the-board, the best-acted Les misérables I have ever seen, a pleasing change of pace from most versions, which pretty much stop caring about the rest of the characters as long as Jean Valjean, the venal crook turned tragic Christian hero and Javert, the mercilessly brittle police inspector turn out alright (or in the curious case of the 2012 musical, flipping that situation around: a generally terrific supporting cast standing behind a Javert who can't sing and a Valjean who's weirdly choosing not to). Hossein's film isn't flawless in the acting department: the seemingly insurmountable role of Cossette here claims Christiane Jean, who responds to the character's frivolous, 19th Century girly-girl qualities by doubling down on icy seriousness and coming across like she has no personality at all. But that's the only apparent weak link in a cast that goes to some hugely unconventional places, but sees all of them pay off: Jean Carmet's César-winning take on Thénardier as more of a shell-shocked victim of fate than a cruel and calculating operator is easily the most offbeat performance of that character I can name, and while it's not exactly what the book called for, it's fascinating from a dramatic standpoint; Bouix's Fantine is much less of an innocent martyr than the stock version of the character, much more of a terrified bird, trying and failing to be hopeful and happy.
The more conventional roles are equally strong: Franck David's Marius fleshes out the earnestness of his student revolutionary just fine, but also nails the prickly impatience that so many screen Mariuses prefer to leave out, the better to have an unsullied character, Candice Patou's Eponine is pathetic and grubby in ways that very few actresses through the years committed to, without seeming like a sad puppy, Louis Seigner's Bishop Myriel is easily the best one I've ever seen, a warm, grandfather of a character whose kindly behavior seems to glide right from his smiling face.
All that being said, the two standouts are the usual suspects: Michel Bouquet's Javert is a terrific mixture of the unconventional (soft features and a much older, wearier man than usual) and the well-executed standards (his barked-out speech, his iron-faced expressions), and the result is an atypically human Javert, or at least a more accessible, natural one. Best in show, as is often the case, goes to Jean Valjean: Lino Ventura, a frequent collaborator of Jean-Pierre Melville, whose performance is just shy of the great heights of Harry Baur in '34 and Jean Gabin in '58, but could not possibly be better for this version of the story, so much more grounded and earthy than theirs. The earliest scenes of a "respectable" Valjean, in his M Madeleine persona, are a little jarring: the craggy Ventura of the opening scenes is still too present in the refined gentleman he's posing as, and not in a way that the script entirely supports. But by the time the action arrives in Paris, any disconnect between actor and part has been erased: Ventura is mesmerising, a far sadder Valjean than I think I've ever seen, haunted by his sins even in his most joyful moments (unsurprisingly, this approach to the character pays off hugely in the scene where Valjean elects not to let the dimwitted Champmathieu take the fall for him).
All in all, it's a wonderfully consistent, coherent version of the story, held back only because Hossein's direction tends to be immaculately proficient rather than stylistically adventurous. But it's a singularly involving take on the material, finding an excellent mixture between fidelity to the source material and functioning as an independent entity, and bringing Hugo's social themes to life without playing at being a tearjerker. It's more alive and direct than any other Les misérables I can name, and surely an essential adaptation of the book if ever the last half-century has produced one.