Saturday, April 21, 2012

Les Mis: Update and an Elephant

To all you Les Mis fans, especially Nadia:Filming of the Les Mis musical, starring Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Amanda Seyfried (Cossette), Samantha Barks (Eponine), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier) and Helena Bonham Carter (Madam Thenardier), is continuing at the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. Some photos of the cast and the sets appear below.

(Click on the photographs to enlarge) 

So, I hear you say, what's with the big arse elephant (although Nadia probably wouldn't use such language) . . .

The elephant statue shown in the pics is the Elephant of the Bastille, a monument that existed in Paris between 1813 and 1846. It was originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon who wanted it to be a symbol of his military prowess.  He intended that it be cast in bronze using cannon captured in battle.  A stairway would allow visitors to ascend one of the elephant's legs to an observation platform on its back.

It was to be the centrepiece of a large water moat built upon the site where the Bastille had been located. The Bastile had fallen in 1789 and had been demolished, being replaced by a aprk and square with a fountain with an Egyptian theme, the feature being a woman with water flowing from her breasts.  Classy.

A model 24m (78 feet) in height was initially built using plaster over a wooden frame. Completed in 1814, the model was protected by a guard named Levasseur who lived in one of the elephant's legs.  The construction work stopped in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

The city council at various times discussed completing the work but nothing eventuated.  Nearby residents began to complain that rats were inhabiting the elephant and searching for food in their homes, petitioning for demolition from the late 1820s. The model elephant was not removed until 1846 by which time it showed considerable wear.

In Victor Hugo’s book Les Miserables Gavroche, who is a son of the Thernadiers and the brother of Eponine, lives inside the Elephant of the Bastille.  His two younger brothers stay with him temporarily.

Engraving from the original Les Miserables book, Gavroche and his brothers inside the Bastille Elephant

As the elephant fell into decline, a rudimentary picket fence was placed around it as shown in the following 1865 illustration by Gustave Brion for the book and as depicted in the above pics of the movie filming:

Victor Hugo’s description of the Elephant of the Bastille is one of the few accounts available and highlights its decline:
It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. "The aediles," as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.
- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862

A steel engraving of the plaster full-scale model.

Watercolour by architect Jean-Antoine Alavoine


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