In the early going, a lot of the critical attention for Les Miserables focused on Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine and whether she deserved an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress or if she already had the award sewn up. Now she has her nomination and a Golden Globe, so that question’s pretty well answered. Fine by me. If I was a member of the Academy, I’d vote for her, although I wish she’d been nominated for her Catwoman too. But not nearly as much attention or enough attention that I’ve seen has been paid to Les Miserable’s fine second female lead.
No, not Amanda Seyfried.
Barks plays Eponine, the street girl whose unrequited love for Marius draws her up onto the barricades with the student revolutionaries and forces her to have to have to decide if she’s going to sacrifice her own chance at happiness for Marius’ and, by extension, her rival Cosette’s.
Cosette is the story’s love interest. In the movie that’s all she is. The object of others’ interest. She’s objectified by her role in the plot. She’s the object of Marius’ affections, Valjean’s charity, the Thenardiers’ scheming, and her mother Fantine’s sacrifices. She doesn’t do anything to advance her own interests or even seem to have any. She is passive and self-less. Eponine, though, is self-interested and she has to take action to advance her interests. It happens, tragically, that some of those interests conflict and then she has to act against herself.
This puts her in the same position as Valjean, Fantine, and Javert. She has to change her mind, change direction, change who she is. And the definition of a protagonist is a character who changes.
But as a character helping to move the story along she has more work to do. She has to carry several of the important themes to the end of the movie and she has to double for Fantine in the second act.
In case we might miss this point, Eponine’s big number, On My Own, echoes Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream thematically and even (to my tin ear) musically to the point of practically being a reprise.
I don’t know if it was my own lazy reading of the novel or if I was overly influenced by other adaptations, but, as I mentioned, until I saw this movie, I thought of Fantine as a secondary character. She was there to hand Cosette over to Valjean. Fantine prefigured her daughter and through her example warned what would happen to Cosette if Valjean didn’t come to the rescue, but then she disappeared. Cosette was not her mother’s double. She was saved from that fate the moment Valjean finds her in the woods.
But the movie musical Fantine is the female lead. (Never mind that Hathaway has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress.) Her suffering and sacrifices are central to the movie. And it’s Eponine, not Cosette, who is repeating Fantine’s life.
We meet Eponine, who is the daughter of the larcenous innkeepers, the Thenardiers, as a little girl, the spoiled darling of her parents’ inn, coddled at the expense of Cosette, the mean step-sister to Cosette’s little Cinderella. But when she turns up later as a young woman in Paris, the girls’ situations have been reversed. The Thenardiers have given up innkeeping, probably not voluntarily, in exchange for a life of more ordinary crime, and it doesn’t appear to be making them rich. Cosette is, if not exactly a princess, comfortable, prosperous, well-loved, and with a wide-open future ahead of her, while Eponine is now poor, desperate, and lonely. She’s dividing her time between working with her father’s gang of thieves and hanging with Marius and his student friends, obviously in love with Marius, who just as obviously regards her as just a pal. Like Fantine at her age, Eponine is without real friends or any hopeful prospects, and she’s made the same mistake of giving her heart to a man who doesn’t deserve her love. The difference is that Fantine's lover was a cad and Marius is a gentleman. He’s undeserving of Eponine’s love only in that he doesn’t return it. But he’s not taking advantage of it. At least, he hasn’t yet. He’s a little distracted at the moment, as he’s busy being a revolutionary, and it’s hard to say how resistant he’d be to temptation if he could focus on Eponine, and she seems determined to get him to focus.
I suspect a lot of people in the audience (male as well as female) who have found to their dismay that they’ve been “friend-zoned” at one time or another identify with Eponine and have crushes on her. Everybody’s on her side (Cosette is nobody’s favorite character) and moved to scream at Marius, “Open your eyes, you dope!” although I also suspect that its Barks not Eponine who is the real object of affection here.
Barks plays the part with heat and pain, and she sings up a storm. (At one point, she actually sings up into a storm.) It’d be no wonder if audiences weren’t riveted and I think it’s a shame how she’s been overlooked by the major awards.
But rooting for Eponine over Cosette means forgetting what Marius knows. Eponine is a criminal. He doesn’t, Javert-like, hold it against her, but it’s a matter of common sense. He’s not in a position to save her from her family and she hasn’t shown she’s capable of separating herself from them. The Thenardiers are more likely to pull him down than he is to pull her free.
What this amounts to, though, is that Eponine’s big mistake in life was choosing to be born to the wrong parents.
Which is a way of saying that she is a victim of fate. She is about to be punished for the accident of her birth, and her punishment is to do the right thing. And doing the right thing demands a complete abnegation of self, exactly what fate demanded of that other of its victims, Fantine.
This is horrifically unfair, and that’s the point. Most of us don’t deserve our fates, however well or badly life has worked out for us. And the difference between the well and the bad is almost always a matter of luck. The difference between Cosette and Eponine is Cosette’s luck in Valjean’s having befriended her mother. The difference between Valjean and Fantine is Valjeans’ luck in having met the Bishop of Digne. And because luck isn’t doled out according to one’s desserts, many good and deserving people will not be saved.
Not in this life.
Driving my own point home about Eponine being Fantine’s double: Lea Salonga sang the part of Fantine in the 25th Anniversary concert version of Les Miserables (Samantha Barks sang Eponine). NSFW because it’ll break your heart and you don’t want your co-workers to see you weeping openly at your desk.
But fifteen years before, in the 10th Anniversary concert, Salonga sang Eponine!