The Surprising Kinship Between ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Cabaret’


You might not think that Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables would have much in common. They hardly seem comparable aesthetically, narratively, or musically. Yet during a recent viewing of Fosse’s classic film (out on Blu-ray today), I was struck by a not-so-distant kinship between these stage-to-screen musicals. Les Mis and Cabaret don’t just present a movie to their viewers. They welcome us in directly, intimately immersing us in the action.

Cabaret literally (actually literally) invites us in. The film begins with The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) looking directly at us before launching into a song welcoming us and the club’s audience. Cabaret knows we’re there and doesn’t want us to linger at the threshold. It symbolically sits us down in the Kit Kat Klub. Throughout “Willkommen” (and almost every subsequent musical number) the camera becomes us — an audience member constantly roaming around to get the best view. Cabaret goes on to extend that sense of our presence to the entire movie. The audience is made to be an omnipresent voyeur, living inside the film, while fostering an intimate and immersive connection with the characters and story.

Les Mis establishes an instant relationship with the viewer as well — albeit a much different one. In the opening shot the camera swoops past the massive scope of the set to settle intimately on Hugh Jackman’s face. Hooper wants us to know quickly that we should be less interested in what’s going on around the characters, and more aware of what’s going on within the characters. There will be big happenings in Les Mis, and they will be seen projected on faces. If Fosse’s film wants to immerse its audience in the movie, Hooper’s wants viewers to feel like they’re intimately acquainted with the characters, sharing their personal space during their most emotional moments.

While Les Mis and Cabaret share similar immersive foundations, where they intriguingly differ is not the “hows” but the “whys.” Or, actually, in the case of Les Mis it’s both. In terms of the hows of Hooper’s film, the director indiscriminately and heavily relies on extreme close-ups to establish the close bond between audience and character. It’s something that he has received a great deal of criticism for from critics, but his and others’ defense of the choice brings us to the “why” of Les Mis’ immersion. The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel is an old-fashioned melodrama that is – as Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman puts it – “unabashed about its musicality, sincerity, and sentiment.” As such, Hooper was intent on making the movie one “without irony” and not shy to display “emotional vulnerability.” Stanley Fish’s defense goes even further, explaining that these tight shots establish that “[the characters’] perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions.” In other words, it’s not about just intimately showing an audience heightened emotion, but pushing them so close to it they can feel it themselves.

Casting aside whether Hooper’s close-ups succeed artistically, there’s no denying that the film is succeeding in provoking the very kind of emotional vulnerability it displays. People connect with Les Mis – tears, ovations, and all. Hooper may wield the power of the tight shot like a blunt instrument, but the raw emotional impact is apparently working for a wide range of audiences.

Meanwhile Cabaret’s 40 years of popular success leaves no doubt it’s equally connected with audiences and critics. Yet Fosse’s musical is a direct confrontation of the escapism that Hooper’s film represents. The MC in Cabaret’s opening song invites us to “leave [our] troubles aside. So, life is disappointing. Forget it. In here life is beautiful.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of what escapist musicals encourage us to do, and it encourages us to do the same – retreat into the frivolity of the cabaret and Brian and Sally’s lives. As the increasing intrusion of the rise of Nazis upon the film’s gaiety reveals, Cabaret’s surfaces are ironically deceptive and the real story is not what presents itself.

There’s a famous moment in Cabaret. The camera tightly hugs the face of a young boy. He’s singing about pastoral summer days. The intimacy of the shot completely immerses us in a kind of wonder and connection with this child, his beautiful voice and his words. Then the camera shifts down and we’re shown that he’s a Hitler Youth. In a way, that’s Cabaret’s intention perfectly distilled: it wants to draw you in with an intimate connection to the superficial joys of songs, only to use that against you to realize there’s more outside the frames of escapist gaiety; that life — as the final song of the film suggests — is at its most beautiful when you don’t hide from its darkness. A message Cabaret especially wants to impart to those sitting in the darkness of a theater doing just that.

That moment from “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” – despite its subversion – curiously brings me back to the similarities between Cabaret and Les Mis. No doubt these movie musicals welcome us in for drastically different reasons. Still they’re united in succeeding making audiences feel things, right down to their emotionally vulnerable cores. As Chris Wisniewski wrote, “There’s a certain kind of pleasure we all seek now and then from the movies we watch — something immediate and visceral.” He was writing about Cabaret, but he could just as well be speaking for all those who’ve seen and loved Les Miserables.