Madame 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.
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
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.”