This tale of lust, betrayal, and amateur surgery is brought to you by Judge Kerry Birmingham, an expert on all three subjects.
An all-star effort from a trio of French luminaries.
Isabelle Huppert. Claude Chabrol. Gustave Flaubert. In order: a grand dame of French cinema, one of the most prolific of the French New Wave filmmakers, and a giant of 19th Century literature. It's an intimidating amount of talent, and it all comes together in Madame Bovary, adapted from Flaubert's perennial classic featuring Huppert in the title role. Though oft-adapted (it's a favorite of the tea-and-corset set), Chabrol and Huppert-frequent collaborators themselves-attempt to put their own distinctive spin on Falubert's tale of repressed desires and folly begetting tragedy.
Facts of the Case
Young, pretty Emma (Isabelle Huppert, Violette) is initially smitten with the young doctor Charles Bovary (Jean-Francois Balmer, Time Regained), a country physician whose visits to her ailing father mask his growing affection for the man's daughter. The widowed doctor and Emma soon marry, but Emma soon becomes disillusioned with married life in provincial France and yearns for the romance and glamour of wealthy city living. In an effort to help Emma's worsening depressive episodes, Charles moves his practice to the slightly larger town of Yonville, where Emma's tastes and desires draw her further away from her husband and baby daughter as she racks up both substantial debts and several lovers. Never satisfied, however, Emma's excessive lifestyle catches up to her in tragic ways.
It would be pointless to explicate the psychological underpinnings of Madame Bovary's character-this is the stuff of a thousand Freshman literature papers, and doesn't bear much repeating. Considered by many to be the first modern novel, Gustave's original really bears more resemblance to the modern soap opera than anything else-love and betrayal with the backdrop of social propriety and complacency; bored housewives at play. If the source material is prosaic in summary and maybe a bit long-winded (it seems there are pages and pages describing just the furniture Emma buys from Yonville's dry goods salesman), it takes a special eye to take Flaubert's material and give it the cinematic spin it needs to survive beyond the page.
Flaubert's countryman Chabrol is mostly up to the task. Taking the long arc of the novel-a series of breakdowns punctuated by brief affairs with uninvested men-Chabrol applies his own penchant for leisurely, meandering narrative and steeps the film in a sense of despair and longing, eschewing momentum for mood, urgency for lush period detail and lingering shots of Emma in repose. Chabrol's version is, like the book, sometimes too concerned with hand-wringing angst and artful anguish to be actually exciting. The passage where Charles performs an ill-fated attempt at medical notoriety by "curing" a local of his club foot is the closest the story comes to action. Madame Bovary was never about the plot, but the stirring archetype of Emma Bovary. A direct line can be traced from Emma to any number of troubled women bothered by the direction of their own lives (Mad Men's Betty Draper is Emma Bovary plus a few hundred years and a scenery change).
Chabrol, directing from his own script, knows this and puts Emma, first and foremost, as a woman who is unhappy without knowing why, a restless soul (who, in modern times, certainly would have been diagnosed with some disorder or another) both pathetic and pitiable. Chabrol directs provincial France of the 19th century with an emphasis on historical detail, a feat aided and abetted by Corinne Jorry's costumes and the design sensibilities of Michele Abbe and Jean Rabier. By elaborating on Emma's world-a world no less full of unscrupulous neighbors in the guise of friends as modern society-Chabrol poises Emma for a glorious downfall. A lot of this falls to Huppert, called upon to play Emma with equal parts romantic rigor and embarrassing naivete. At first blush, Huppert, even when this was filmed, is a bit too old to play Emma for her girlish charms, as her first meetings with Charles suggest. Playing a slightly older Emma-one who is a mother, a community member, and the "experienced" lover of lusty romantic Leon-the benefit of casting Huppert becomes clear: she conveys much with her eyes and with the forced primness of her walk, the kind of details that only an experienced actress and an experienced woman can bring to bear. When Emma makes misguided after misguided turn in search of fulfillment, casting numerous hobbies aside and embracing any chance at love or adoration, it's the Chabrol/Huppert team that gives it weight and poignancy. These two veterans at the helm manage to make Emma, simultaneously tragic and foolish, sympathetic and despicable. As in the book, things don't go well for any of the Bovarys. An occasional narration that bridges chapters of the novel reappears at the end, and efficiently updates viewers on the fates of various characters: bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. It's not the most exciting story, or even the most original one, but the sad fate of Emma Bovary is given an appropriate filmic treatment by Chabrol.
The second disc contains what's really the only bonus feature (with the theatrical trailer), though it is a substantial one. Serge Toubiana's hour-long "Isabelle Huppert: Playing Life" is an insightful profile of the actress and her work from 2001, bookended with Huppert's stage performances of Medea. Toubiana's portrait is cerebral and intimate, with on-set footage of Huppert with directors like Chabrol and Michael Haneke (her director on The Piano Teacher) interspersed with ruminations on acting and the internal forces that shape her performances. Those interested in the actor's process and the ephemeral nature of performance as art would do well to watch Toubiana's film, a rare actor's profile that is flattering without being fluff.
Chabrol's faithful, sometimes plodding take on the classic won't be for everyone, but with the help of Huppert he does manage to make a compelling period drama and provides a serviceable adaptation of tricky material. Students looking for an easy way around having to read the book for class could do worse than Chabrol's reverential treatment of the text, and if they find Emma's melodrama cliché or dull, it's what they deserve for not taking the time to read the book. Slackers.
While many will find themselves impatient with both the story and Chabrol's interpretation thereof, this judge found its subtleties and assured direction intriguing. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Isabelle Huppert: Playing Life Documentary
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