Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert's other sentimental "hero," Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


Mr. Madame Bovary

March 2, 2005

Flaubert remarked, when asked about the origin of his ‘heroine’, Madame Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” If he can say that, then Emma and his works can take many forms, and so she has. First, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes – that memoir?, novel?, runimation? of a Flaubert fanatic that is delightfully odd; and now Gemma Bovery, a graphic novel that is freely inspired by the novel and is a wickedly funny and witty work in its own right by Posy Simmonds. That’s Gemma, up there with Gustave. (I saw the movie version of Bovary with Isabelle Huppert, and it seemed to me that it followed the book too faithfully to be interesting as a film.)

Flaubert didn’t write much, but he sweated famously over every word, looking for “le mot juste.” He was also a great letter writer, and if you want the full flavor of his personality, you must dip into his correspondance, where you will find gems like this:

To Guy De Maupassant [his protege, working as a clerk for the Navy at the time]
You must—do you hear me, young man?–you must work more than you do. I’ve come to suspect you of being something of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. …You are living in an inferno of shit, I know, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart. … sacrifice everything to Art. Life must be considered by the artist as a means, nothing more, and the first person he shouldn’t give a hang about is himself.

In his fiction, Flaubert walks the finest of lines, and creates a unique tone, something he considered the essential element of his work. He objectively depicts stupidity, greed, tragedy, cruelty, and simple, naive goodness, but without nostalgia, sentimentality, snobbism or condescension. He understands that the cliche, unbearably trite though it may be, holds within it a truth which has been worn nearly to nothing by thoughtless use.  That truth, concealed, hidden, revealed unwittingly by those who know only error – whether it is error due to ignorance or too much education – that truth is what he seeks to display to the reader.  He is one of the first writers to grapple with the phenomena of modern mass society: the dreams of the consumerist citizen; political double-talk; the deluge of kitsch into the cultural marketplace; and, of course, ‘modern sex.’ That’s why Madame Bovary was declared obscene by the French government.

I wonder, was that scene in “Titanic” where the young hero and heroine couple in the back seat of a sedan parked in the lower-deck garage, showing us one (female) hand slapping the rear window in a hot-moist passion – was that inspired by Emma’s tryst as she rode around Rouen in a carriage, wobbling with love, as she drops handkerchiefs out the window?  Was Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” inspired by a reading of his Salammbo? Think of Hanno, the general, carried in his litter, behind veils to conceal his hideous, bloated form from which disease is busily rotting his skin.  Princess Lea, scantily clad, bound in chains, strangling Jabba to escape while distracting him with a sexy dance – that could have been right out of the novel.

He was a stoic, a martyr to his art, a cynic, a romantic, a spoiled gentleman, perhaps a bit of a pervert, though in his fantasies only.  Here’s a juicy sample of his fin-de-siecle yearnings from the Temptation of Saint Anthony:

Her wide sleeves, garnished with emeralds and birds’ feathers, allow a bare view of her little round arm, ornamented at the wrist by an ebony bracelet, and her ring-laden hands are tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles. A flat golden chain passing under her chin runs up along her cheeks, spirals around her blue-powdered hair, and then dropping down grazes past her shoulder and clinches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts. Two large blonde pearls pull at her ears. The edges of her eyelids are painted black. On her left cheek-bone she has a natural brown fleck; and she breathes with her mouth open, as if her corset constricted her.

He was also something of a nihilist. What’s the point of anything when the sum total of human stupidity never decreases? And that includes all those who think they’re so smart as well…includes him! What happens to his heroes? Emma: suicide; Salammbo: miserable death and rape, if I recall correctly; Moreau: a life of mediocrity after a Sentimental Education in Paris, his story concluding with a trite, “Those were the days!” And Bouvard and Pecuchet – what do they do in the end? They go back to copying as clerks after ‘sampling’ western culture in its entirety, and Flaubert loves them for it. Trillling put it well:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century. Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself. The novel does nothing less than that: it rejects culture. The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding…that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Vanity – something Saint Anthony knew about. I think about those lions in the valley, lazily dispatching the remaining Carthaginian soldiers with a swipe of the paw, then ripping out their entrails. Culture…how deep does it go?


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