Why Les Miserables Won the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hair

*spoilers* go see the movie.

A friend of mine argues that the Hobbit should have won the Oscar for best makeup. he believes that the degree of technical difficulty of creating the prosthetics should be rewarded with an Oscar. As we all know now, Les Miserables took home that Oscar and neither of us really understood why. After some thought, I believe I have the answer. Makeup, just like every aspect of a film, should serve and support the Story. Makeup must tell a story of a given character. What is that character all about? What has that character gone through? A clean and sharp looking character would tell us that that person is pretty well off and takes care of themselves.

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A dirty and unshaven man tells us that this person has gone through hell and has probably been in hell for a really long time.

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Hugh Jackman’s character, Valjean is a great example storytelling through makeup. But lets take a look at another character who’s transformed by makeup in dramatic fashion – Anne Hathaway’s Character, “Fontaine”.

Fontaine is a character that goes through a couple of transformations throughout the film. She goes through three main stages:
1. Vibrant and delicate
2. Pale and rough
3. Angelic
As you will see, the makeup supports these stages by telling us who Fontaine is and what she has gone through.

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1. In Fontaine’s first stage, she is beautiful and vibrant. Her skin is fair and clean; shes dressed in bright blue work clothes and then dressed in a relatively bright pink gown. Her hair falls gently on her face giving us the idea that she is a delicate woman. Though, her hair is messy enough to say that she is a bit overworked. Makeup has done an excellent job telling us that Fontaine is a character full of life yet delicate. However, placing this young and vibrant girl among her worn and dreary coworkers, hints that a jealousy has been brewing in this sweatshop for a long time.

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This gives Fontaine’s co worker’s motivation to assault her and eventually get her thrown out of her workplace. Clearly, Fontaine is the only person who did not belong among them. Again, the drastic contrast of makeup work done between Fontaine and her co workers helped created this dynamic of jealousy and hate.

2. Fontaine’s first transformation into her character’s second stage begins when she enters the sketchy neighborhood. She is still vibrant and contrasts heavily with the beggars and prostitutes that surround her. The old beggar is dirty with frizzy hair that hasn’t been tended to in a long time. It is clear that the prostitutes have tried to pretty themselves up with makeup but have done such a bad job with it that it has turned out so unnatural. Again, Fontaine finds herself in a place which she does not belong. However, instead of being thrown out of the dirty neighborhood, this delicate girl is consumed by the place and eventually becomes one of them.

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Her transformation seems almost immediate as her hair is chopped off – but we don’t stop there. More and more is taken away from Fontaine until she is left with nothing. She is literally stripped naked of everything she has! Now, lets look at that makeup job.

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Her face but is now more of a pale and rough mess. Well… She WAS. I’m guessing they warmed her up just for this shot. Her rosy cheeks suggest that she is quite ill. Her hair no longer falls delicately on her face, rather its all butchered up, sharp and angular. Her makeup job shows the dramatic change of a once beautiful young girl into a torn and broken woman.

Fontaine’s health depletes more and more throughout the film, with the makeup to support it until eventually she dies. I did say there were spoilers in this analysis.

3. Fontaine’s third and final stage is her Angelic stage. After dying, she returns to Valjean in the form of an angelic being. She returns to her formal radiant self… minus the hair of course but at least it is nicely cut and less butchered! Fontaine has been given a heavenly shower and a makeup job that seems only possible by modern makeup techniques.
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Angelic makeup = shes an angel… you get it.

So, you see the makeup in Les Miserables does an amazing job of supporting the story. It tells us who these characters are and what they have gone through. It’s not as technically difficult as creating prosthetics in the Hobbit, rather the difficulty is in telling a story through the makeup in a way that is believable and invisible to the audience. I’ve always been taught that in film, if an audience doesn’t notice or question the work you’ve done, then you’re doing something right.

BONUS ANALYSIS!

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Anyone notice how Javert’s makeup never really changes throughout the film? Even undercover, he has still got that clean and rugged face. Could this also be, in someway supporting the story and his character? He has always accused Valjean of never being able to change. When in fact it was Javert, himself who could not change and give up his mission on hunting down Valjean!

 

For more Les Mis film analysis, check out Film Crit Hulk’s critique of the film’s cinematography. Here is an excerpt from the article that brings to light how the invisible art of cinematography evokes emotions and conveys important information:

“HULK HAS TALKED ON AND ON ABOUT HOW MUCH SOUND IS “THE ACTUAL VISCERAL EXPERIENCE OF MOVIES,” AND THAT IS VERY MUCH TRUE, BUT THAT STATEMENT IS NOT TO DOWNPLAY THE STUNNING IMPORTANCE OF CINEMATOGRAPHY THAT CONVEYS BOTH INFORMATION AND FEELING TOO. EVERY USE OF ANGLES, SPECIFIC CAMERA, LENS, PROXIMITY AND FRAMING HAS A DIRECT CORRELATION ON HOW THE VIEWER TAKES IN THE INFORMATION. IT IS NOT AN ACCIDENT THAT THEY CALL THE FILM CAMERA “GOD’S EYE” BECAUSE IT’S OUR GATEWAY TO OMNISCIENT EXPERIENCE. AND IT ALL ADDS UP TO ONE VERY SIMPLE NOTION:

CINEMATOGRAPHY MATTERS.”

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