Madame Bovary (1949)

16 Dec

220px-madamebovarymovieposterMadame Bovary is one of those classic novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, along with watching the 1949 film adaptation of it, so when Love Letters to Old Hollywood announced the “Vincente Minnelli Blogathon,” I was quite excited to see the film and read the book (though I haven’t actually read the book yet).

Vincente Minnelli is one of those directors I am always aware of enjoying, even though I am not as good at observing the distinctive style or techniques of a director. I associate him with musicals (The Band Wagon being one of those movies I never tire of seeing), but he also did comedies and dramas and, in the case of Madame Bovary, costume dramas.

Madame Bovary is adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert and is set during the mid 1800s. Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) is the daughter of a farmer, who grew up on romantic literature much in the way Don Quixote gorged himself on chivalrous adventures. She fully expects life to be a romance, to be beautiful, and when she first meets the doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), she assumes he is her knight in shining armor, so to speak, even though Charles warns her that he is not a very exciting person and only an adequate doctor who will never rise in the world.

But married life inevitably disappoints. Everything inevitably disappoints her, including motherhood. Charles adores his wife, but cannot figure out how to make her happy. Emma increasingly tries to achieve her illusive dreams of beauty and romance and all the while increasingly digs a hole for herself and her family, leading to tragedy.

It was hard for me not to come away with the impression that Emma Bovary is essentially a silly woman. Not a pragmatist like Scarlett O’Hara, she lacks her grit. She also lacks cleverness. My understanding is that this is not radically different from Flaubert’s portrayal in the book, though. She makes Anna Karenina look wise by comparison.


Vincente Minnelli directing Louis Jourdan and Jennifer Jones

Because of the book is (I’m getting this from hearsay) about her desire for something extraordinary in a very un-extraordinary world, I also couldn’t help wondering if MGM was maybe the wrong studio to make this film. The film looks a bit too pretty, too picturesque and charming. It tends to work against our sympathy with Emma. Flaubert is noted for his realism, which is not something MGM was noted for. Having said that, however, Vincente Minnelli does some beautiful things in the film.

The most famous scene is the ballroom scene, where Emma and Charles have been invited to the Marquis D’Andervilliers’ house. Charles is clearly out of place, but Emma is in her element. It is the high point for her, where she has temporarily achieved her dreams, the Cinderella at the ball with Louis Jourdan’s Rodolphe Boulanger as the prince charming. The way Vincente Minnelli films it, it is a delirious dance, spinning around so that the audience feels every bit as dizzy, dazzled and disoriented as Emma does.

I also liked Minnelli’s use of mirrors. Emma sees herself in the gilded mirror at the ball, surrounded by admiring men. In a later seen, having a tryst with a humble clerk living well above his means, Leon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin), who is also madly in love with her, she looks at the cracked mirror in her cheap hotel and wonders how she came so low. She views herself through mirrors, it seems, as she appears in her surroundings rather than who she really is as a person.

Another moment that stood out to me was when Rodolphe Boulanger is attempting to seduce her at the local fair. They are inside a building while just outside the windows, speeches are being made about agriculture. Rodolphe speaks words of love and the speaker calls out for more manure. It was the most striking examples of the mismatch between her romantic illusions and reality.

This movies seems to have reminded me of a lot of different movies and books, because I also couldn’t help comparing it to Letter From An Unknown Women, which also stars Louis Jourdan as a womanizer. The leading lady (played by Joan Fontaine) also entertains romantic illusions that are out of step with reality, though in the case of Letter From An Unknown Woman, her illusions are centered on one man rather than a more inchoate future. Emma’s dreams don’t require any particular person


Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Van Heflin

I also have to say a word about Emma’s wardrobe. Perhaps symbolic of her dreams, her wardrobe always seems to be out of all proportion to her surroundings. I kept wondering how her husband was affording it. As it turns out, he wasn’t and her inability to pay for her clothes turns out to be very important in the plot as she falls prey to a predatory draper, which precipitates her ruin. But when Charles first sees her in her humble farm house, she is festooned with ruffles and bows and whatnot. She looks like a lady in waiting deigning to visit her humble tenants.

Because the story of Madame Bovary is about an adulterous woman, there were some objections made by the Production Code. To make the story acceptable, . Gustave Flaubert’s real-life obscenity trial was used as a framing story. James Mason plays Flaubert and explains to the court how his story is true to life and also quite moral. The result of his narration means that the film is given a slant towards blaming the creators of romantic literature and expectations for her fall…rather like Cervantes does in the first half of Don Quixote. It has made me very curious about the novel and what the differences are.

Thanks so much to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting! For more posts on Vincent Minnelli, be sure to check out “The Vincente Minnelli Blogathon.”



Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Movies


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13 responses to “Madame Bovary (1949)

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    December 16, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Interesting. MGM and Minnelli certainly had the resources to film an exquisitely looking film, but it sounds as if they may have let the character down a bit. It might be interesting to compare with other versions and I note by the IMDb that there are a few. That would be a most time-consuming project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 16, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      It would be a very fascinating project, though! You make me very curious to look at the other films.

      I’m still a little puzzled about the character aspect. I’m not sure if it is Jennifer Jones (who I normally enjoy as an actress) or just the result of filming an inherently less than likable character. The film does look exquisite, though!


  2. Michaela

    December 16, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    This film has such a great cast! I love everyone in it — particularly Louis Jourdan (he was wonderful at playing womanizers, wasn’t he?). I’m glad you pointed out Minnelli’s direction. He did so many genres, but I think he added little touches that were inherently his, such as the dancing scene here. Great addition to the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 17, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Thanks! I so agree about Louis Jourdan! And I love how he can play variations on his womanizing character – he’s never just the same kind of cad. 🙂

      That’s a good point about Minnelli’s touches that are inherently his. Your blogathon has helped me think more about his film and how they are never boring to watch and there always seems to be a certain scene that is greatly celebrated (like the one in Meet Me in St. Louis where Judy Garland is extinguishing the lights). But he never does it in an ostentatious or showy way.


  3. carygrantwonteatyou

    December 16, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Read this so many years ago that I don’t remember many details, but I think your characterization of her as rather flat intellectually is dead on. She reminds me a bit of the heroine of Sister Carrie. I’d like to see this film. Might even make me reread the book:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 17, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      I was so hoping someone who had read the book would be able to weigh in – thanks!! The film does definitely make one want to read the book (I’ve just got it from the library). 🙂

      You make me rather curious about Sister Carrie, too. 🙂


  4. Silver Screenings

    December 17, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Well, I haven’t read the book or seen this film – even though James Mason is in it! – but your post has me curious to do both. I’ll be coming back to compare thoughts after I see the film. I like how you describe Minnelli’s “touches”, especially the use of mirrors.

    Christina, I have to say that you’ve prompted me to add more classics to my To Read List than any other blogger I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 17, 2016 at 1:21 pm

      Wow, I’m flattered! I love comparing classics with movie adaptations – it’s exciting to share it! 🙂

      We don’t see James Mason in the film much, but he does a fair amount of narration and he has such a perfect voice for narration. He’s one of those people I could listen to read a laundry list.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. FictionFan

    December 17, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    “Break the windows!” Hahahaha! That may become my new catchphrase… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Le

    December 21, 2016 at 5:25 am

    I own the book Madame Bovary, and I’m interested in watching the movie. What you said is interesting: MGM maybe wasn’t the best studio to tackle a story so realist.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      December 21, 2016 at 12:35 pm

      It is a very interesting films – some lovely moments! And should be very interesting to compare to the book! Yeah, MGM seems a bit too glossy. I wonder what studio might have been better?

      Thanks for the link! 🙂



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