Jennifer Jones, the Emma in Vincente Minnelli's stylish and glossy 1949 M-G-M adaptation, is virtually the image of the woman described in the novel. Yet she is somewhat too innocent to be credible. Looks are not Miss Huppert's insurmountable problem. There is something much more wrong-headed going on.
From the beginning of the film until very near the end, Miss Huppert's Emma is imperious and rather frosty, so level-headed and so in command that it seems impossible that she could mess up her life with such wanton and short-sighted thoroughness.
Her Emma moves through the film like an icon, as if she had read Flaubert's glowing reviews and accepted them as tributes to herself. She's an ice queen.
This plays havoc with the dramatic intent of most of "Madame Bovary." Though the movie is handsome, it is without life at its center until Emma's last days when her recklessness catches up with her, and when Flaubert's Emma and Miss Huppert's begin to coincide.
In all other ways, Mr. Chabrol knows what he is doing. "Madame Bovary" is painstakingly realized, moving with a gradually quickening pace that becomes a terrible unstoppable surge toward disaster at the end. But because of Miss Huppert's particular screen personality, the larger part of the film plays as if it were a stately re-enactment rather than a dramatization.
When first seen, the convent-educated Emma is the bored daughter of a well-to-do farmer. To change her lot, she accepts marriage with Charles Bovary (Charles-Francois Balmer), the slow-witted widower who cannot believe his good fortune.
Emma is an intensely sexual creature whose appetites, once aroused, are unfulfilled by her husband. Her increasing lassitude prompts Charles to move his medical practice to a somewhat larger village where Emma, still bored, begins to act out her romantic fantasies.
She makes her house into something of a small-town showplace. She borrows money in ever larger amounts and dresses in the latest fashions as reported in the popular magazines. She flirts discreetly with Leon (Lucas Belvaux), a young law clerk.
After Leon moves away, she is ready to give herself completely to Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy), a handsome, casually aristocratic fellow who makes an initial play for her more because she is there, a fresh Alp to be scaled, than because of her innocence and charm.
Sometime after Rodolphe throws her over, Emma begins a sexual liaison in Rouen with Leon that, as described by Flaubert, remains as steamy today as it was when the French Government tried to ban the book. It is this liaison that is the beginning of the end for Emma.
The novel has been filmed a number of times. Jean Renoir did it in 1934 with Valentine Tessier in the title role. There was a German version in 1937, made with Nazi approval, starring the one-time Hollywood vamp Pola Negri.
The novel has a way of misleading film makers with the absolute clarity of its prose, its precise descriptions of time, place, character and behavior. It seems to be made to order for the screen.
Not so apparent, until someone of Mr. Chabrol's talents comes along, is how much of the novel exists in the voice of the author and in Emma's mind, which can't facilely be dramatized, explained or analyzed. Labels have been attached to Emma. Miss Huppert has been quoted as calling her "an idealist" and "a feminist without knowing it."
No labels are accurate, though. Emma eludes simple definition, which is why she is one of the seductive creations in modern literature.
Mr. Chabrol has now fallen into the trap. He has also been vamped by Miss Huppert. In an article in Conde Nast Traveler, Francine du Plessix Gray quotes Mr. Chabrol as saying that Miss Huppert "has the extraordinary gift of expressing things without changing her face." Yet one man's open book, to be read at will, can be another man's Sphinx, a stony face that expresses nothing.
Possibly because Mr. Chabrol feels that his star is speaking volumes, he refuses to emphasize events that are crucial in the novel, even when he uses a narrator from time to time. Charles's humiliating failure as a doctor is shown in some grisly detail, but without stressing its effect on Emma. Her increasingly muddled handling of their financial accounts remains vague.
Though the supporting actors are all good, especially Mr. Balmer and Mr. Malavoy, the roles themselves seem somehow reduced in importance. This is especially true of Homais (played by the superb Jean Yanne), the pompous, artfully ambitious pharmacist who is so important to the downfall of Emma and Charles and, indeed, to the novel.
Mr. Chabrol errs on the side of understatement. His "Madame Bovary" is not to be dismissed. It is so good in so many details that the wish is that it were better. See it. You won't be bored, but you may want to talk back to it.
This film is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has sexual situations. Madame Bovary Written and directed by Claude Chabrol, based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert, in French with English subtitles; director of photography, Jean Rabier; edited by Monique Fardoulis; music by Matthieu Charbol; produced by Marin Karmitz; released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. Running time: 125 minutes. This film is rated PG. Emma Bovary . . . Isabelle Huppert Charles Bovary . . . Jean-Francois Balmer Rodolphe Boulanger . . . Christophe Malavoy M. Homais . . . Jean Yanne Leon Dupuis . . . Lucas Belvaux Lheuveux . . . Jean-Louis Maury Hippolyte . . . Florent Gibassier M. Rouault . . . Jean-Claude Bouillaud Felicite . . . Sabeline Campo Justin . . . Yves Verhoeven Mother Bovary . . . Marie MergeyContinue reading the main story
| Genre : drame narquois.
Il y avait déjà beaucoup de Mme Bovary chez Violette (Nozière), la parricide, et chez Marie, l'avorteuse d'Une affaire de femmes, du même Chabrol. Ces deux-là ont parfaitement préparé le terrain : après elles, on ne pouvait imaginer plus flaubertienne Emma qu'Isabelle Huppert, ni même plus flaubertien cinéaste que Chabrol, lequel ambitionnait précisément l'« absolue fidélité » au roman.
Lors de la sortie du film, cette fidélité lui fut reprochée, vite identifiée à un manque d'inspiration. Rétrospectivement, c'est pourtant l'ironie impitoyable de la comédienne et du cinéaste (restés en cheville jusqu'au bout, voir le dérangé Merci pour le chocolat et L'Ivresse du pouvoir, autour de l'affaire Elf) qui saute aux yeux. Une ironie qui, comme l'entendait Flaubert, vient constamment désamorcer la charge dramatique des événements et souligner la bêtise de tous les personnages. Elle nous autorise à rire des malheurs et de la vie ratée d'Emma, plus grande rêveuse des annales littéraires, sans oublier que, évidemment, le bovarysme est un mal universel. — Louis Guichard