Les MisÚrables: Cast

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After completing the script for Les Miserables, Lelouch was immediately faced with the task of finding an actor to carry the central role someone who could embody: the hope, suffering, joy, crudity and nobility of human life in his face and behavior. What's more, because of the allegorical nature of the movie, in which events repeat themselves from generation to generation, the lead character had to be able to play his own father as well, and to age several decades in the course of the story.

Lelouch found his Henri Fortin in Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Known primarily to American audiences as the cocky young thief who starred in "Breathless" opposite Jean Seberg, Belmondo is respected and beloved throughout Europe as a versatile, charismatic star of stage and screen.

Lelouch and Belmondo first collaborated in 1969, on "Un Homme Qui Me Plait," but not until 1987, when the director saw Belmondo perform in live theater, did he recognize the true scope of Belmondo's talent. Impressed by his presence, Lelouch offered Belmondo the starrng role in "Itineraire d'un Enfant Gate," which was critically acclaimed in France. Then, once again Lelouch saw Belmondo perform onstage, this time in the lead role of "Cyrano," and this time he knew that he'd found his Henri Fortin.

To create the role of Fortin, who, in the course of the story, becomes a convict, a boxer, a thief, a war resister and, finally, a contented businessman, Belmondo often exchanged views with Lelouch. They were less concerned with following the script than with discerning the truth about "Fortin-Valjean," his intimate contradictions, his greatness and his pettinesses.

Says Belmondo, "Fortin is an archetype, the incarnation of a man in perpetual insubordination, an oppressed man struggling against the circumstances that assail him, but ultimately morally victorious.

"Each day, Lelouch would begin by conditioning me, sort of like a boxer before entering the ring. And he would not give me the script until a few moments before the takes. This allowed me to arrive completely new, all excited and on my toes."

The Jewish Ziman family, who go from a luxurious and intellectually rich life (he is a lawyer, his wife is a famous ballerina and their daughter is a bright young schoolgirl) in pre-war France to desperate poverty and fear as they try to flee the Nazis and stay together, are played by French star Michel Boujenah, former prima ballerina Alessandra Martines, and by the young actress Salome.

Says Lelouch, "The Zimans are characters who do not belong to Victor Hugo, but who symbolize for me the misery of the twentieth century. As their lives intertwine with that of Henri Fortin, they cross class and religious boundaries to help one another survive, gaining a far richer understanding of the world for their trouble."

Monsieur Ziman spends an extraordinary segment of the story imprisoned in the cellar of a farm by a greedy French couple (Annie Girardot and Philippe Leotard), one of whom wants the money Ziman has stashed in Switzerland and the other of whom wants only Ziman's cultivated attentions.

Says Michel Boujenah of his character, "Ziman is a mixture of ridicule and despair, courage and cowardice. It is this mixture that makes him human. In spite of all his faults, he finds a sort of redemption in the suffering he comes across. It is a very rich character; having such a role to play is a wonderful chance for an actor."

Alessandra Martines began her adult life performing for George Balanchine, first at the Zurich Ballet de l'Opera, then at the New York City Ballet. She next moved on to the Chicago Ballet and the Rome Opera Ballet. Martines made her film debut for Hungarian director Pal Sandor and also performed successfully as a stage actress and a telefilm star. After meeting Claude Lelouch when he cast her in a perfume commercial for television, Martines starred in Lelouch's film "Tout ca...Pour ca!" before being cast in "Les Miserables." Of her experience with Lelouch on the set, Martines says, "I can't help myself from establishing a parallel between Claude Lelouch and George Balanchine. There is in the creation of both an extremely precise design and direction, all leaving you total liberty or so you think! of interpretation. Claude comes on the set, whispers some words in your ear, and it is thanks to those few words that you will be perfectly right in the scene."

The role of the Ziman's daughter, Salome, is played by Claude Lelouch's own teenaged daughter, also named Salome, in an underscoring of the deeply personal nature of this story.

The sweeping cast of "Les Miserables" includes many of France's best-known actors, such as Annie Girardot, who plays the greedy farmer's wife a modern Thernardier and Philippe Leotard, who plays the even more base farmer. Girardot, whose now-classic performances include the role of Nadia in Lucchino Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers," has starred for director Lelouch in many films, beginning with "Un Homme Qui Me Plait" and "Vivre Pour Vivre" and continuing through "Il y a Des Jours et Des Lunes," three years ago.

Clementine Celarie, known as a comic actress, here plays the tragic role of Henri Fortin's mother, Fantine. Fantine, whose husband has been unfairly imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, goes to work for a family of cruel and abusive innkeepers, the Guillaumes (more Thenardiers!), played by Rufus and Nicole Croisille. Soon, she is turned by them into a prostitute to earn her keep and support her young child. She finally commits suicide in despair.

Jean-Paul Belmondo's own son, Paul Belmondo, plays a young Henri Fortin in a boxing scene. A young handyman at the Guillaumes' inn many years after their deaths is named Marius, as in Hugo's novel, and is played by Michael Cohen.

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