I read Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary in high school as an elective. As a matter of fact, I gave a report on it. The transcript is probably among my old things somewhere, as I have a tendency not to throw things away, but the work has flitted from my skull altogether. I can’t say I recall what I thought of the book at the time. Like anything else, it’s something I could approach with more maturity if I read it again now. In all likelihood, by the time I do so I’ll have a number of film adaptations under my belt. Madame Bovary has been filmed numerous times and in numerous languages, by such eminent directors as Jean Renoir and Claude Chabrol. To date, the only film version I’ve seen is the MGM film from 1949, directed by Vincente Minnelli. I borrowed it from the local library in 2011, about five years out of high school.
My movie-watching was still somewhat haphazard at that time, so even though I’d seen a few of Minnelli’s films already, I didn’t have any kind of grasp of his style. To my eyes, Madame Bovary was pretty much just another abridged novel from classic Hollywood, with a familiar story, pretty costumes and no pernicious flaws. I could claim an uncritical kinship with the film since I’d read the book, but apparently nothing on the screen convinced me to place the movie among my favorites. The vagueness of my reaction to the film is exactly what I had in mind when I started this series of blog posts. I wasn’t blogging when I first saw Madame Bovary, nor was I writing capsule reviews with any discipline. I simply shrugged this movie off as “pretty good, but not for me.” My appreciation for Minnelli’s gifts has greatly increased in the interim, so I was excited at the chance to revisit one of the few films of his that I didn’t embrace wholeheartedly.
In the Production Code era, the subject matter of Madame Bovary courted controversy. The title character’s infidelity and profligacy, while not strictly taboo in storytelling, were the sort of vices that the moral authorities feared would be too tempting to audiences unless they were plainly censured. Flaubert extended sympathy to his heroine, which was all well and good, but sympathy couldn’t be allowed to obscure Emma Bovary’s responsibility for her own fate. As a way of addressing these potential objections, the film includes a framing device. The novel itself, after all, was scandalous in its day. So the film takes shape as a recounting of the trial at which Flaubert defended his work from obscenity charges. As played by James Mason, the author makes the case that his novel is a diagnosis of societal problems, that Emma’s downfall is the result of thwarted expectations and an uncaring environment. From this perspective, the film proceeds to recount the major events of the novel. On one level, the frame story is a very defensive way of opening a film. At the same time, it performs the same kind of coup as Elsa Lanchester’s turn as Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein: treating a simple adaptation of a literary classic as though it were a direct feed into the author’s mind.
This film’s relationship with its heroine is appropriately complicated. As Mason’s narration explains, Emma allows storybooks to convince her she can transcend her humble existence and find both elegance and magic. It’s easy to sympathize with such longings, and the crash when Emma’s life disappoints her is palpable. Not unlike Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (or Belle in Beauty and the Beast, while I’m at it), Emma awakens every morning to her village’s stifling routines. Her husband can’t understand why she’s dissatisfied. When big-city glamour crosses her path from time to time, she seizes upon it, even trying to run away with another man at one point. Emma’s delusions about romance and fine living always go south for her, but the toll her behavior takes on her family is the real problem. The film includes a couple scenes that painfully illustrate her failure as a mother. And her husband, a fatally uninteresting country doctor, is a model cuckold. That sounds snide, but Charles Bovary loves his wife too much not to forgive her. He’s one of the few Christian supporting characters in Hollywood history who is consistently righteous without ever being haughty. The movie’s greatest strength is its ability to explore the situation from both Emma’s and Charles’s perspectives.
Nowhere do these perspectives come through so strongly as in the film’s most celebrated sequence, the ball at which both husband and wife’s fears and desires are laid bare. Dissolves track the progress of Charles’s drinking, as his insecurity darkens into depression. Meanwhile, on the dance floor, the camera glides and spins along with Emma, dancing with anyone but her husband. This scene is famous because it’s the best example of Minnelli’s formal elegance in a film that can get a bit stuffy. The back half in particular tends to lose me as Emma slowly slumps into ruin. The foreshadowing is clunky — halfway through the film, an apothecary warns of the dangers of arsenic. Still, the mirror motif is a nice touch. Throughout the film, Emma will regard herself in a mirror, constructing a fairy tale image of herself that feels real but ultimately cracks. Charles tries to accommodate her impractical desires at first, but he recognizes his limits before she does and refuses to participate in the illusion.
I still have a few nagging problems with this film. It comes from a time when high-profile literary adaptations were required to fit certain strictures of style and content. It also comes from a time when movies were self-conscious about wanting to be included in the same conversation as literature. Great movies could unquestionably be made in such an environment, but sometimes the results are more programmatic. This version of Madame Bovary clearly exists in the shadow of Gone with the Wind, which is unfortunate. Jennifer Jones and Van Heflin are fine in the two lead roles, but they can’t quite lift the weight of the story’s tragedy. In a similar way, the movie itself is quite good but never feels essential. As a result, I’ll leave its 3-½-star rating untouched.