'Bovary' Returns to Film

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 1992 | Go to article overview

'Bovary' Returns to Film


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


GUSTAVE FLAUBERT'S novel "Madame Bovary," published in 1856, has long been hailed as a masterpiece of realism. It is also considered a founding work of modernism in the arts - using a combination of detachment and irony to tell of a country doctor's wife caught between middle-class banality and the glamorous excitement that fills her dreams.

The story has held strong appeal for filmmakers, as well, and a pair of new motion-picture versions have recently arrived on American screens: a dutiful retelling by French director Claude Chabrol, and a visionary adaptation by Russian director Alexander Sokurov.

They aren't the first cineastes to film the story, of course. One earlier version was made in 1934 by French director Jean Renoir, who emphasizes the claustrophobic quality of Emma Bovary's life with frequent shots of characters trapped near walls or framed in barely opened doorways.

More familiar is the Hollywood version of 1949, in which Jennifer Jones plays a gorgeous Emma under Vincente Minnelli's direction. This version includes scenes from Flaubert's trial for writing an "indecent" novel, and closes with a declaration that his acquittal was a great step forward for freedom of speech. Amusingly, however, the movie itself censors and distorts many of the book's most important scenes.

Such silliness doesn't make Minnelli's version a bad movie, but it does wipe out the picture's value as a reflection of Flaubert's intent. Infidelity to Flaubert is not a sin of Mr. Chabrol's new version, which hews closely to the novel. This isn't surprising, since Chabrol has emulated Flaubert in his movie career - which began in the New Wave movement some 30 years ago - by exploring the decadence and dissatisfaction hidden in middle-class life.

Chabrol has also worked with actress Isabelle Huppert on such diverse films as "Violette Noziere" and "Story of Women," and their collaboration on "Madame Bovary" marks an ambitious culmination of their partnership. Happily, she gives a splendid performance, skillfully avoiding either a frivolous indulgence or a moralizing condemnation of Emma's failings.

Chabrol matches this carefully thought-out portrayal with an equally careful depiction of Emma's surroundings, capturing the daily realities of 19th-century provincial France with an eye attuned to both the quiet beauties and the boring repetitiveness of this milieu. …

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