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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.

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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

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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.”

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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?

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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.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Movies

 

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