Do You Hear The People Cry? Les Miserables and the affective audience

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This week sees the DVD release of the film version of Les Miserables, as well as the release of the Deluxe Edition of the movie soundtrack, following the disappointing highlights CD released earlier in the year. There are many ways to approach discussing the film; from its status as an adaptation to the curious way in which its actress Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine) moved, over the course of the 2012-2013 Awards season from being a respected actress to a subject of derision and irritation, not to mention broader debates over the status of musicals in the cinema. Here, though, I want to reflect more personally on the film and consider its affective impact on audiences in general, and on myself more specifically.

The propensity of both the theatre version and, now, the film version of Les Miserables for inducing tears in its audiences has been widely noted. In a story on the BBC News website psychologist Averil Leimon argues that the expectation of being moved to tears is part of this experience, noting “Les Miserables is known for causing people immense emotional response. So people go expecting to be moved and are prepared to let themselves go.” The question of whether the movie was the ‘film world’s biggest ever weepie?’ was posted by The Guardian whilst the BBC, again, sought to discover which moments caused the greatest amount of crying. Why this seeming obsession with audiences and their emotional or affective reactions? Why is this response to the film seen as so interesting or, in some cases, peculiar? Audiences are moved by a range of films, often for quite complex or personal reasons. Examples such as the death of Bambi’s mother, the opening sequence of Pixar’s recent animated Up, the end of Titanic, the resolution of The Notebook, The Green Mile, and E.T. are all widely accepted as films that include emotional scenes or resolutions that may pull at the heart strings. Personally, I find the ending of Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzannegar’s Terminator sacrifices himself in a pool of molten lead, brings me to tears; there is apparently no accounting for some of the things that move certain audiences or individuals.

Given this, and the fact that even a brief survey would surely unveil odder anomalies than an Austrian cyborg giving a thumbs-up in terms of films that move or affect, the focus on Les Miserables does seem a little odd. Is this a result of a discomfort with public displays of emotion? Should we still be expected to maintain a stiff upper lip, no matter how moved we might be by a film or a play? Does this stem from an ongoing cultural assumption that such emotive displays are somehow feminised, a little too ‘girlie’ for us to take seriously? Or, is there some cynicism about media texts that might be seen to be ‘programming’ us to cry at certain points (the BBC’s film of people crying at the film might seem to attest to this), a sense that audiences are being emotionally manipulated by film-makers to weep on cue? Without some empirical audience research, perhaps we cannot yet offer answers to these questions.

For me, however, my emotional responses to the film are complex. Whilst the story is undoubtedly full of tragedy, death and grief, and the performers offer often heartbreaking renditions of songs such as Anne Hathaway’s lauded ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ , Eddie Tremayne’s ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, or Hugh Jackman’s ‘Bring Him Home’ , for me, this isn’t the full story. My own love of Les Miserables is long-standing, spanning over twenty years of adoration for the music version. This is not a unique story; the musical has many dedicated fans who, too, have seen both the stage and screen versions multiple times. There are also others whose lives and memories are surely interwoven with the songs and experiences of seeing different stage versions and performers and who, like me, have shared those experiences with family and friends. This disclosure is not to claim any special rights or insight into what it means to watch, and be moved by, Les Miserables. Rather, it is an attempt to suggest that, whilst questions about affective audience responses to texts should be asked, the only way to really uncover answers is to ask the people themselves. Rather than assuming reasons for why Les Miserables might be one of the world’s greatest weepies, we should consider the histories and attachments, the lived associations, of audiences and the story. Audience emotions should be taken seriously, and a film like Les Mis offers us the chance, as audience researchers, to do so. Only when we talk to audiences, when we figuratively allow them to sing (as the musical would have it), can we start to truly understand why they might continue to be moved to tears.

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