Madame Bovary

(Claude Chabrol, France, 1991)


Famous Nouvelle Vague director Claude Chabrol takes on an archetypal 'woman's tale' in his adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Emma Bovary, with her feet in the mud and her head in the clouds, is a literary icon. Many film artists (including Jean Renoir and Vincente Minnelli) have been drawn to her story as if it were the story of all women, or the feminine condition.

Yet, while Flaubert's novel paints a telling portrait of a woman's socially defined entrapment, it is hardly fitting material for a contemporary feminist allegory. Minnelli's 1949 Hollywood version presented Bovary (Jennifer Jones) as a raging hysteric, high on melodramatic desire. Chabrol is more in tune with Flaubert's withering misanthropy; he describes his Bovary (Isabelle Huppert) as "stupid" and "mediocre" as a result of her mind-numbing environment.

On the road from blushing romance to ghastly oblivion, however, this Bovary is often cool and cagey. Chabrol closely – perhaps too closely – follows the plot and characters of the novel: decent but insensitive husband Charles (Jean-François Balmer), soulless seducer Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy), callow young lover Leon (Lucas Belvaux). More than any previous adaptation, this version stresses the ugly, barbarous world surrounding Emma: primitive medical operations, diseased peasants, dirt and darkness.

As in the more contemporary mystery-thrillers that have made his name, Chabrol focuses especially on everyday economics – the secret system of loans and debts that slowly but surely undo everyone. The film's cold, detached viewpoint never coincides with Emma's dreams and ideals, however stupid these might be.

Chabrol is certainly true to Flaubert, but one is left at the end of his relentless, even oppressive rendition wondering: what is the point of retelling this grim tale in the context of today's world?

MORE Chabrol: Docteur M, L'Enfer

© Adrian Martin September 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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