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.