Eye For Film >> Movies >> Madame Bovary (1991) Film Review
Gustave Flaubert's infamous novel, which caused enormous moral rumblings when it was first published in 1856, is brought to the screen by Claude Chabrol with only limited success.
His blow-by-blow attention to provinicial detail, following along the lines of Flaubert's surgical precision in writing about the banality of the bourgeoisie, brilliantly epitomises rural life in France at the time, but leaves one wishing to watch paint dry in preference, as there is nothing to relieve the relentless vapidity. Where Chabrol fails utterly, is in his portrayal of Emma Bovary, whose subtleties of character are elusive in the film.
Isabelle Huppert, although a consummate French actress, is a little long in the tooth for the part and lacks Emma's fiery passion, ambition and flesh-and-blood flaws, with which Flaubert's readers can empathise to a certain extent. Her dead fish portrayal of a one-dimensional, shallow, self-obsessed woman leaves one wincing at her attempts at high emotion. It is not as in the book, where one could identify with a living, breathing human Emma and her yearning for a more exciting life.
In her time, Emma's only recourse to alter her situation was through men, firstly marriage, and when that didn't work, affairs. Therein lies the tragedy and our sympathy, for although we might not particularly like her, we can feel some sadness for Emma Bovary's position and in the tragic consequences of her attempts to buck the system. In the novel, one is led inexorably, as in a Greek tragedy, to inevitable downfall. In the film, it is like watching a sequence of pretty boring events, with little to stir the heart, except realistic blood and guts surgical procedures, which churn up the stomach more than anything.
However, the dullness and pettiness of provincial life is actualized by Chabrol with his use of beautiful sets and good choices for the supporting roles. Jean-Francois Balmer portrays the dull, plodding doctor with aplomb and Christophe Malavoy, as the gorgeous, aristocratic rake, is superb. Florent Gibassier, as the luckless Hippolyte, who ends up with one leg less, is positively bovine and at the other end of the scale, Jean Yanne, as M Homais, the conniving pharmacist, shows us how little things have changed at parish pump level.
The sets at the ball, the market and the different houses are exquisite and give a real sense of the period, as do the costumes.
All in all, watching this take on Emma Bovary is an exercise in stamina and perseverance, which I don't think was Flaubert's intention at all. Sets and costumes can only entertain to a certain degree. Flaubert described literature as "the dissection of a beautiful woman with her guts in her face, her leg skinned and half a burned-out cigar lying on her foot." This adaptation is anything but.Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2006