Following fate-tossed Henri Fortin's progress through unjust imprisonment, the boxing ring and two world wars, this vast and vastly enjoyable epic demonstrates how the hero's obsession with reaching the end of Hugo's novel makes him compare his plight to that of Jean Valjean, both men sticking to their moral integrity to get them through the very worst of times. In Fortin's case, he helps a Jewish family escape both the Gestapo and the anti-Semitic collaborators all too keen to sell them out, and it's Lelouch's unflinching depiction of France's shoddy wartime treatment of the Jews that puts a little iron in the movie's abundant soul. You could argue that such hard-edged drama sits ill beside the generally light-hearted tone of Belmondo's picaresque adventures and the imaginative dips in and out of Hugo, but it's part of the magic Lelouch has worked that his story-of-all-stories theme matches the catch-all inclusiveness of his old-fashioned celluloid showmanship. Although Boujenah's portrayal of the hard-pressed Jewish father Ziman sails close to caricature, elsewhere Léotard and Girardot make a marvellously grizzled rural couple, while Belmondo's performance sweeps the whole thing along with undemonstrative charisma.
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