Gustave Flaubert's infamous novel "Madame Bovary" was the "Lady Chatterley's Lover" of its day, causing infuriated public reactions and obscenity trials that probably only helped inflame passionate readership for the book, which first found life as a serial in The Paris Revue. Though the book received a typically luminous, if subdued and after its initial release very badly truncated, filming by Jean Renoir in 1933. Both German and, believe it or not, Argentinian film adaptations followed in subsequent years, but it is probably Vincente Minnelli's glossy 1949 film with Jennifer Jones in the title role that brought the book to its largest cinema audience. That adaptation was curiously chaste, considering the source novel's emphasis on adultery and the rather lusty pursuits of the good doctor Bovary's wife, but it did have an unusually fierce performance by Jones, if too much of a Hollywood patina of glamour and glossiness to really make a deep emotional impact (how can one feel sympathy for Emma Bovary's distaste of the provincial life, when it portrayed to such MGM-perfection?). Some of those dichotomous elements are overcome quite handily in Claude Chabrol's gorgeous 1991 film of Madame Bovary, a film that virtually reeks of the French countryside that our anti-heroine comes to despise so much. If Isabelle Huppert is less savage than Jones in the title role, the rest of the production is one of the most stunning recreations of an historical period in French film, with a sure directorial hand that manages to evoke not only a period, but the emotions of the characters living through it.
Chabrol, one of the French New Wave, and renowned for his exegetical treatises on the films of Hitchock, might not be thought of as an apt choice for the realism that a true adaptation of Madame Bovary needs. And yet this Bovary has the palpable feel of the 19th century, its attitudes, mores and most of all its claustrophobic village sensibilities. This is a long and langorous Bovary, which actually works to the film's benefit. Certain sections, like the wedding, which are given at most a passing glance in the Minnelli version, are here portrayed in a charming and simple fashion which highlights the simple pleasures of these unsophisticated country folk.
If Huppert is less wanton than Jones in this role, she's much more effective in portraying the on-again, off-again ambivalence of Emma's reactions to her proletarian fate. In fact when the virtually Nietzschian sounding scoundrel Boulanger enters the picture, urging her to forego the "everyman" societal norms and indulge in a little extra-marital fling, Huppert aptly depicts both Emma's abhorrence at the idea and also her temptation by it. Emma is one of the most complex female characters in literature, and it requires an actress of exceptional merit to walk the tightrope between making Madame Bovary both vulnerable and opportunistic. Huppert largely succeeds on both counts. If Huppert is the putative star and focus of the film, in truth it is Jean-Francois Balmer's Charles Bovary that ends up being the real emotional core around which the film revolves. Balmer does exceptional work showing a good and decent, if boring, man attempting to please a wife who is simply too ambitious for her own good.
The film is occasionally hyperbolic, to its detriment, and has some formal issues that hamper its complete success. There is a too intermittent narration device that occurs for the first time too far into the film to seem natural (it would have been better to start the film with the device, which would have prepared the viewer for its subsequent occasional uses). There are also a couple of soliloquoy moments with characters speaking out loud to no one in particular that seem forced and unnatural, something that is distinctly at odds with the rest of the film's naturalistic portrayals.
This is a beautifully shot film with exceptional production design and costuming (which received a much-deserved Oscar nomination). French village life is brought admirably to the screen, with its everyday trials and tribulations, as well as more festive elements which dotted each year. There are some lavishly beautiful outdoor scenes which seem like they could have been painted by Jean's Renoir's grandfather, Claude. Chabrol has a beautiful eye for detail, as well as some sweeping uses of dollies and crane shots that keep the action flowing even while the emotional focus is nicely intimate.
If things get literally rather ugly toward the end of the film, once Emma's wheelings and dealings catch up to her, it only helps make this Madame Bovary feel all the more real. There's a certain abrupt feeling to the coda, after the denouement, which ties up a few quick loose ends but which feels tacked on to no real purpose. Taken as a whole, however, Chabrol's Madame Bovary is a beautiful and languid visual experience mixed with a tempestuous emotional undercurrent that makes it easily the best film adapatation of its famous source material.
The DVD The Blu-ray
Madame Bovary arrives to DVD with a good enhanced 1.78:1 image that, while soft (and I believe intentionally so), contains some of the lushest and most subtle use of color I've seen recently. There is some grain apparent, always very natural looking, as well as occasional damage (most of which pops up in the last few seconds of the film).
The French stereo soundtrack (with optional English subtitles) is perfectly fine, if not outstandingly directional. Fidelity across all ranges is good, and reprroduction of the minimal underscoring is also excellent.
A second disc with a 51 minute 2001 French television special called "Isabella Huppert: Playing Life" is included, featuring not only a bevy of scenes from various Huppert films, but also some sweet archival footage and contemporary interviews. If Huppert occasionally comes off as a bit too self-absorbed, it's nonetheless an interesting look into the life and work of one of France's greatest contemporary actresses. The original theatrical trailer is also included.
This superb French version of Madame Bovary overcomes a few missteps to stand as the best film adaptation of Flaubert's epochal novel. Huppert and Balmer are amazing in the leads, and the entire physical production is stunning. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet