It's hard to talk about what's wrong with Claude Chabrol's static retelling of Madame Bovary without mentioning the glossy 1949 version, directed by Hollywood musical master Vincente Minnelli. Few of the nine celluloid stabs at Bovary pleased Flaubert's fans (Jean Renoir's 1934 fantasy version probably came close, because it used the novel as a springboard for offbeat comedy, rather than trying to be faithful to it). To purists, Minnelli seemed an especially poor candidate to tell the tragic story of a beautiful farm woman whose materialistic and sexual appetites cripple her husband and end her life in tragedy.
But in the end, Minnelli's wild, kinetic approach worked amazingly well. Flaubert prided himself on his fanatical attention to detail; he spent days, even weeks, crafting a single sentence, or polishing an image until it shone like the greedy light in his heroine's eyes. His portrait of Emma Bovary, who is all surface and no depth, and who spends her entire life in a fruitless search for emotional and sexual satisfaction, was told in a tightly controlled stream of images, faces, dresses, lovers, and ambitions. Minnelli told Emma's story as an ironic fairy tale that started out airy and light on its feet, drawing us into Emma's delusion that a dense country doctor, Charles Bovary, could whisk her away from her dreary past as a convent-educated field hand and into the glittery hustle and bustle of the Parisian suburbs. Then things got progressively darker and drearier, echoing Emma's realization that her free-spending, free-loving ways had ruined both her husband and herself. Minnelli realized that in order for the audience to have sympathy for Emma's predicament, they had to be held spellbound by her dreams; that way, when we woke up alongside Emma, the cruel butchering of fantasy by reality would be as powerful to us as it was to her.
Chabrol's much-praised new version of Madame Bovary is directed in the naturalistic style of Chabrol's other work (in its obsession with physical and emotional pain, it often resembles his 1988 film Story of Women, about a female abortionist executed by the French government). Although Chabrol's art department worked overtime to achieve on-location period flavor - shooting mostly in restored nineteenth-century buildings near Rouen, France - Chabrol's attention to the minutiae of costumes, architecture, and landscapes works corrosively. The world around Emma (the great Isabelle Huppert, looking wan and lost) has the pale realism of an early color photograph, when it ought to be an expressionist painting, bursting with color and swimming with motion; Chabrol's world grinds down Emma Bovary's fantasies before they even begin.
This isn't to say that Chabrol's approach is wrong because it isn't Minnelli or Renoir, or because it isn't what this particular Bovary fan would like. It's wrong because it reduces Flaubert's overflowingly detailed fever/dream of a novel to an arid volume of cinematic Cliff Notes; it illustrates and summarizes the book without bringing it to life. Chabrol has claimed that his film is a work of "absolute and unprecedented fidelity" to Flaubert's novel. That should be enough to clue you in that this project was wrong-headed from the start: a Polaroid photograph might demonstrate absolute and unprecedented fidelity to your Aunt Maggie and Uncle Ned, but that doesn't make it great art.
Chabrol's workhorse, rub-your-nose-in-the-unfairness-of-life approach worked brilliantly in The Story of Women, but only because that film represented a perfect match of material and subject; in Bovary, his kitchen-sink pastoral grubbiness makes the whole tale feel dingy and listless - and worse, pointless. Because Chabrol never invites us inside Emma's consciousness, we never get the chance to feel what she's feeling, or see what she's seeing; we begin to wonder why we're watching this poor woman humiliate her husband, trash her reputation, and ultimately die a ghastly death.
Huppert is a fine, rawboned beauty who has the ability to play quiet, inscrutable characters without making them seem shallow. Here, miscast as French literature's ultimate shallow woman, she has nothing to hold in reserve; she's a waif with hormones. As her husband, Charles, Jean-Francois Balmer inadvertently becomes a surrogate for the audience; he spends much of the picture struggling to love his wife even though her behavior seems manipulative, destructive, even crazy. He's the victim of tedious unpleasantness, and it shows in his tired face and shambling walk; he's so likably pathetic that you may feel like inviting him out into the lobby with you to ask for your money back.
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Flaubert's novel, for all its irony and bite, occasionally had empathy for the "poor obscure soul" of its title. Chabrol understands sympathy, not empathy; he realizes what emotions Emma Bovary must feel, but seems incapable of feeling them himself. His dust-and-misery movie visits the ultimate cruelty upon Emma Bovary; it robs her of her delusions and dreams, the mechanism of her own glorious disbelief. There's no disbelief in Chabrol's Madame Bovary; only suspension, stagnation, and despair. It's a wake-up call that can put even the staunchest Flaubert fan to sleep.
Directed by Claude Chabrol; based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert; with Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Francois Balmer, Christophe Malavoy, Lucas Belvaux, and Jean Yanne. In French with English subtitles.