Madame Bovary

mmebovaryMadame Bovary (Claude Chabrol, 1991)

Isabelle Huppert, Jean-François Balmer, Christophe Malavoy

In nineteenth-century France, the romantic daughter of a country squire marries a dull country doctor. To escape boredom, she throws herself into love affairs with a suave local landowner, Rodolphe, and a law student, Leon, and runs up ruinous debts.
This film version closely follows Flaubert's novel and includes most of the famous scenes, such as the wedding, the ball, the agricultural fair, the operation on the clubfoot, and the opera in Rouen. IMDb.

I don't disagree with the critics I've cited below, so I encourage you to read them in full, particuarly Mr Canby (the links are provided) and won't go over the same ground, particularly regarding the poor performance of Mlle Huppert. I will just add a couple of notes of a narratological kind.

Chabrol uses an unseen voiceover narrator extensively. There is very rarely any justification for this in a narrative film, which should be about cinematographically showing, not verbally telling. I see it as laziness, as a failure on the part of the director to think very hard about alternatives. In this case, the dramatisation of book by a novelist celebrated for his 'voice', there might have been some justification, but it doesn't convince me.

Even worse, at one point, Chabrol has Rodolphe doing a soliloquy while walking in a field - expressing his thoughts out loud. This is voiceover narrator fault squared. It's not just unrealistic, it's hammy, corny, and other such buccal metaphors.

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. Vincent Canby, NYT.

During his labor on Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend, 'Everything should be done coldly, with poise'. And in directing his film adaption of the novel, Claude Chabrol has followed the master's instructions to the letter. The veteran French filmmaker's treatment is precise, deliberate, and a peerless example of faithful allegiance to its source.
But Chabrol has taken his countryman's advice far too literally. The movie is coldly done, all right, yet as an exercise in literary transposition it's as joyless as ditch digging. He's managed to reproduce Flaubert's clinical fastidiousness, the diligent spadework done in the service of realism, but none of the tensile passion that gave his prose its shapely muscle. ...
A great actress might have rescued him; unfortunately, he has Huppert, who plays Emma as a shallow, pouty brat. And while Flaubert's heroine might have been both, there was a tragic magnitude in her banality that evoked sympathy and identification. Huppert makes us want to shove this creep down a flight of stairs. Her Emma Bovary merely expresses, in microcosm, what is wrong with the movie as a whole. What she and her director have given us is a colorless facsimile that is the opposite of ideal -- that instead of leading us to a great work, turns us away. Hal Hinson, Washington Post.

Other versions

Jean Renoir, Valentine Terrier, 1934

Gerhard Lamprecht, Pola Negri, 1937, German

Carlos Schlieper, Mecha Ortiz, 1947, Argentina, in Spanish

Vincente Minnelli, Jennifer Jones, 1949

Hans Schott-Schöbinger, Edwige Fenech, 1969, entitled Die nackte Bovary [Naked Bovary], The Sins of Madame Bovary, Play the Game or Leave the Bed

Tim Fywell, Frances O'Connor, 2000 (telemovie)

Sophie Barthes, Mia Wasikowska, 2014


Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 9 August, 2018 | Now: 24 October, 2018