Tag Archives: Louis Jourdan

Madame Bovary (1949)

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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Gigi (1958)

22f11555026If I had a time machine and could go anywhere at all, I would go back to the opening night of My Fair Lady in 1956. My Fair Lady has what is for me one of the most glorious, exhilarating, beautiful, even magical, scores of any musicals. However, while My Fair Lady was enjoying its sensational run on Broadway, the composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner came to Hollywood and helped turned Colette’s novella Gigi into a musical.

The stories are so similar, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two. Critic Bosley Crowther even joked that Gigi “bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves.” The first time I saw it, my reaction was tepid. The music just never seemed to take off and soar like it does in My Fair Lady. However, on viewing it a second time, I have to admit that as a movie, Gigi might be more successful than the later 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady. Vincente Minnelli directed, some filming was done in Paris and on the whole it feels far more fluid and attractive than the more stage-bound and slightly stiff My Fair Lady (which I still watch frequently because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to the opening night in 1956 and I really shouldn’t complain).

The story occurs during the turn of the century in Paris. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is being raised to be a courtesan by her grandmother, Mamita (Hermione Gingold), and Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Meanwhile, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is wealthy and bored, while his uncle, Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), seems to love every minute of his life as a roue. The only people Gaston feels like he can relax with is Gigi and Mamita…until he realizes that Gigi’s no longer a child and he offers to make her his mistress.

When I watched Gigi this second time, it struck me that though the musical is called Gigi, it’s not really about her as much as it is Gaston (though I suspect that is not the case in the novella). Gigi seems like an enigma to me. We never find out why she’s like she is – unaffected, innocent despite being trained up as a courtesan, dissatisfied with the prospect of being a courtesan and playing the games of love. What makes her so different? Was it her grandmother’s doing?


Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold

Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez – “Mamita”-  provides an unexpected center and heart for the film, suggesting all sorts of depths of character. She’s savvy, has a sense of humor, knows how to ingratiate herself with men, even Gaston. She was, after all, a professional courtesan, though she doesn’t seem to have made out as successfully as her very wealthy sister Alicia. Was she, perhaps, not as hard-core as her sister? Alicia is the one who really preaches to Gigi about pleasing men and making sure you get the right kinds of jewels from one’s lovers and so on.

But Mamita, after all these years, seems to harbor a soft spot for Honore Lachaille, though he was untrue to her while they were together, and carries a touch of sadness and wistfulness. Life didn’t really give her all that she wanted, it seems. And she lets her daughter work in opera, even though she cannot sing. Whatever makes her daughter happy, apparently. Ultimately, Mamita has the same approach with Gigi. They seem to be an unorthodox bunch.

I have not seen Louis Jourdan in much (except in the beautiful Letter From an Unknown Woman), but he evidently did all his own singing, somewhat in the style of Rex Harrison. Initially, when we meet his character, he seems like a crank. He’s “bored” with everything, while his uncle, Honore, finds so much to enjoy in life. However, as the story progresses, one begins to understand why Gaston is so bored and to feel less sympathy with Honore’s attitude towards life and women.

Gaston pretty much does what everyone tells him to do – especially Honore – and what society expects of him. Ironically, the film shows how a promiscuous society can be just as much a prison as excessive puritanism, with its own rules and codes of conduct. Gaston hops from mistress to mistress, without love or affection. He must defend his “honor,” pretend to be a cheerful bon vivant and at all costs never appear ridiculous. Why? Because that’s what everyone does and he hasn’t yet realized that he neither needs nor wants to live that way.

The best songs in the film, in my opinion, are the ones that Gaston sings. They reveal his character and show his inner thoughts and how he comes to understand himself better – especially in the song “Gigi” when he realizes that he loves her. Lerner and Loewe seem especially good at using music this way. They do the same thing in My Fair Lady when Professor Higgins sings that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.” And the songs are long enough to make the transformations feel plausible.

leslie caron & louis jourdan - gigi 1958I was watching a video on youtube recently, where a film editor explained that emotions take time and film editors have to take that into account and not rush the scene along. What Lerner and Loewe do is use music and song to give us that time. Those moments, for me, are some of the most compelling in Gigi.

One of the best scenes is when Gaston realizes that Gigi has grown up and he loves her – something that comes as a complete shock to him because it never before occurred to him that she was someone he could love (like how we put certain people off-limits for ourselves. It doesn’t occur to people to love siblings or cousins because it is not really an option. It’s partly a social construct, a mental block we put up. Gaston discovers that he doesn’t need to have that mental block about Gigi).

The other song is between Honore and Mamita, as they sit and reminisce. It’s such a gentle song, witty and amusing, but with a touch of sadness and a layer of irony. Honore clearly does harbor fond memories of Mamita, but the lovely things he tells her (like how he loved her so much he had to have an affair with another women to remind him that he was not the marrying kind) sound so nice we want to believe them, but it is clear that Mamita does not, but she harbors no rancor towards him.

I still can’t entirely decide what I feel about this movie. It’s charming, I like it, the story is intriguing, but the music never quite captures my imagination the same way that My Fair Lady does. My Fair Lady is sheer exhilaration. The acting in Gigi is good. I was especially impressed with Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold this time around. Perhaps the greatest mark of its affect on me is that I would like to watch it again and give the movie a chance to grow on me, because I suspect I will like it the more I see it.


Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Movies


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Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

letter-from-an-unknown-woman-movie-poster-1948-1020436819Letter from an Unknown Woman is such a beautiful movie, it seems incredible that it is not better known. It was a box-office failure when it was released in 1948 and received some critical praise, but nothing lavish. Through the years, it has risen in critical estimation , but still has not garnered the attention it deserves, though it has, fortunately, been released on DVD and Blue-ray.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that the movie has a very European feel and the director, Max Ophüls, is not a well-known director in America. German born, he made many movies, but fled first to France, becoming a citizen, and then to America before WWII. He didn’t like Hollywood, however, and made only a few movies, most of which are not well-remembered today. Most of his masterpieces came later, when he was in France; but Letter From an Unknown is still an achievement, with brilliant direction, fine acting, and a beautiful score that captures the era and mood of each scene. It is a stunningly, achingly beautiful film.

The movie follows the unrequited love of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) for the charming libertine and pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a man so self-absorbed that he does not remember her each time they meet.

It opens in Vienna in the early 1900s with Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) having been challenged to a duel. An irresponsible man – at this point he’s thrown away his career as a pianist – he intends to leave before the morning when he is supposed to fight the duel. But when he returns to his house in the evening he is given a letter by his servant from an unknown woman, detailing to him her lifelong love for him.

The first time he sees her

The first time he sees her

The movie is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by Lisa, of the three separate occasions that she saw him. The first time was when she was a very young woman, still a girl, and he was still studying music and preparing for his career. He moves into her apartment complex and she sees him several times, living it up, mostly with other women, and hears him practicing constantly on his piano. He only notices her once, but he has become everything to her and, she writes in the letter, she “began quite consciously to prepare [herself] for [him],” taking lessons, studying music.

But her mother remarries and they move away from Vienna. Having refused a very eligible offer of marriage, she returns to Vienna when she is grown and meets him, now a burgeoning concert pianist, and they have one night together, though he has to leave the following morning. The third time they meet is many years later. She has had his child, but married a man who loves her and is willing to raise her son as his own. But she runs into Stefan at the opera. He has given up concerts and now seems to live a very idle life, but she is determined to explain to him about her love for him and their child, and perhaps re-spark his career. She goes to him that night, much to the anger and sadness of her husband, only to find that Stefan still does not remember her from the previous occasions. She is just another casual pick-up for him and in grief she leaves him.

It sounds quite melodramatic, but is a surprisingly moving film and there are a variety of things going on. On one level it is a tragic romance, but on another level it is look at romantic obsession, delusion and self-destruction. What is surprising is, despite the blatantly self-destructive tendencies of the characters, how beautiful the film remains. You can see what’s going on, but find yourself drawn into the romance nonetheless.

Their second meeting

Their second meeting

Glenn Erickson, in his review for DVD Savant, calls the film a taking “of the romantic coming of age’ fantasy to its logical extreme.” It is like a fairy tale gone terribly awry. In a fairy tale, they would have been meant for each other and eventually she would have been noticed by him and he would have realized  that she is what he has always been searching for, his ideal woman. And in the film, it is as if Lisa lives in a fairy tale, though the rest of the world is going on prosaically. The film looks like a fairy tale, but there is enough evidence for us to realize that we are seeing the world through Lisa’s eyes because we are hearing her story, told by her, but with our clearer eye we can see her self-delusion and how utterly self-absorbed and unworthy Stefan is. The film draws us into her fantasy, but we remain aware that it is a fantasy.

Both Fontaine and Jourdan are excellent in this film. She plays the role with complete simplicity, naiveté, sincerity and purity of love, as if the very purity of her love ought to be rewarded. But in reality it is not so much purity of love as an obsessive delusion. Fontaine ages quite believably from girl to young woman to mature woman of society and through the very intensity of her devotion, despite its less admirable aspects (like leaving her kind husband for this man she has foolishly dedicated her life to) she retains your sympathy.

There is also a very good performance from Art Smith, who plays Stefan’s servant who, cannot speak, but his eyes are very speaking and you can see his compassion as he watches what unfolds. At the end of the film, after Stefan has finished the letter, Stefan realizes that his servant knew who she was all along and the servant quietly writes down her name for Stefan: Lisa Berndle.

Stefan and Lisa, with her husband in the background - third meeting

Stefan and Lisa, with her husband in the background – third meeting

Louis Jourdan is charming, handsome, completely selfish, but earnestly searching in his own, dissolute way, and Jourdan conveys this exceedingly well. You can see the shallowness of the man, but also his desire for something more ,which he is too lazy or pleasure-focused to truly seek. Each time they meet, he always asks if they’ve met before; he’s sure he’s seen her before. Alexander Dhoest, in his article on the use of music in the film, writes “Stefan’s words sound like hollow pick-up lines, but his insistence suggests a genuine internal restlessness, thus adding to the complexity of his portrayal.” And truly, he has seen her before, if he would only really look at her (though he has had so many women it is understandable that it would be difficult to keep track).

There is a scene, during the night that Lisa and Stefan spend together, where the two of them are at an amusement park. It is winter and covered with snow and carnival music is playing in the background (as many writers have pointed out, demonstrating the artificiality of the relationship that is in contrast to her belief in him). He says he likes the amusement park better in the winter, when there are no people around. That way he can imagine it as they could be instead of as it really is. One suspects he feels the same way about his music, he can imagine what it should be, but can’t quite produce it. He definitely feels that way about women; he’s never found his ideal.


another example of artificiality – an amusement park ride; it is a mock train where paper scenes roll by the window to create the illusion that it is moving

Scenes like the one at the amusement park are illustrative of the physical beauty of the film and Ophüls was known for his tracking shots and fluidity of camera work. Vienna looks artificial, but also so stunning that you want to believe in the artificiality (like fairy tales and romances). Music is also extremely important in the film, with every kind of music you would expect to hear in Vienna. Daniele Amfitheatrof wrote the score and weaves in” Un Sospiro” into the score, an etude by Franz Liszt that Stefan is practicing at the beginning, which becomes his theme. But, as Dhoest writes in his article, there is quite a fair use of diegetic music (music that occurs from the action of the film). There is the etude that Stefan plays, street singers, carnival music, a military band, opera. And  apparently (I read somewhere) the song from the opera playing in the background is from “The Magic Flute,” by Mozart, where a character is singing, but does not recognize the woman he loves.

It’s really amazing the layers that are in the film. I don’t usually pay much attention to what kind of music is playing or to symbolism, but it enhances the film in a very natural way, without being showy or bizarre. Despite the fact that Letter from an Unknown Woman is often described as a melodrama and a tearjerker (i.e. women’s picture), it’s much more than that.

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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Drama, Romance


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