French author Gustave Flaubert is on trial for writing the "indecent" novel "Madame Bovary." To prove that he wrote a moral tale, Flaubert narrates the story of beautiful Emma Bovary, an adulteress who destroyed the lives of everyone she came in contact with.
Jennifer Jones ... Emma Bovary
James Mason ... Gustave Flaubert
Van Heflin ... Charles Bovary
Louis Jourdan ... Rodolphe Boulanger
Alf Kjellin ... Leon Dupuis (as Christopher Kent)
Gene Lockhart ... J. Homais
Frank Allenby ... Lheureux
Gladys Cooper ... Madame Dupuis
John Abbott ... Mayor Tuvache
Harry Morgan ... Hyppolite (as Henry Morgan)
George Zucco ... Dubocage
Many readers have found Gustave Flaubert's classic novel 'Madame Bovary' somewhat cold and dispassionate, but few will have that complaint after watching this film. Jennifer Jones' flesh-and-blood embodiment of Emma Bovary has passion and emotion to burn, yet it still manages to remain in the spirit of Flaubert's work. Vincente Minneli's direction is brilliant and at times stunning. Witness the waltz sequence. Besides being so aesthetically wonderful, just think what a technical marvel this scene must have been in 1949! I can recommend this version of 'Madame Bovary' without reservation.
Jones' center-stage presence dominates, of course, but the performance of Van Heflin as another memorable character, the pitiable, cuckolded Charles Bovary, should not be overlooked. Plus this movie shows us that Ellen Corby wasn't always old! Check her out as the Bovary's servant, Felicite.
It is impossible to do a perfect movie version of any novel. This is particular true about great novels. There have been huge numbers of versions of Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tom Jones, David Copperfield, War and Peace...you can add the titles... and while many are really impressive as movies (or are favorites of the viewers) few of them are as good as the novel. It's because there is a serious change in the art form involved - the written word can be read and interpreted in so many ways, while the cinematic "eye" of the film may not encapsulate all the writer planned to push with his/her words.
When Gustave Flaubert wrote MADAME BOVARY in the middle of the 19th Century, he shook up that country in a way that was unusual. Flaubert wrote a story of passion and love, but from the standpoint of a female bourgeoisie in the countryside. And one who finds her escape from humdrum provincial life by her overly romantic imagination. But Emma Bovary is doomed by that imagination, and the unscrupulous reactions to it by the men who dominated that same provincial world. Her lovers, like the aristocratic Rodolphe, see her as a willing tool for their pleasure, or as a silly impediment to their careers (as her lawyer lover soon finds). As the strands of her romanticism are lopped off, as the debts she gets that her husband Charles cannot pay lead to bankruptcy, she goes to pieces and kills herself.
The full novel is wonderful, and even now I consider it possibly the best 19th Century novel. But it's appearance met with public disbelief and anger. Flaubert was put on trial for publishing an immoral book. The censors and hypocrites felt that he had besmirched the pious middle classes of the France of the 1840s and 1850s. Flaubert was acquitted, and the scandal of the trial improved the sales of the novel.
Vincent Minnelli's 1949 movie can't reach the effect of the full novel - and I say this thinking that I could only read it in English, so that I can imagine what it must be in French! He does peel the skin of the provincial society, with it's social leaders, money lenders (like Lhereux - Frank Allenby) here who are all business and no sentiment, aristocrats (Rodolphe is Louis Jourdan), and attempts to push themselves into the greater world outside. Just as Emma sees herself the object of desire by aristocrats at the ball Rodolphe throws, the village sees itself made into a household name if Charles can perform the great foot operation that will restore one of the rustics feet to normal. Both are in for great disappointment.
Minnelli sense of composition works wonders in the film. The scene where Emma finally is the center of attention looks shows her surrounded by handsome beaus in a mirror - it looks like an idea from the mid-century painter Winterhalter (although he was Austrian). The backwoods provincial background is caught perfectly. When debts starts swooping around a frightened Emma, she goes to a man she respects, and finds he's ready to make a financial arrangement if she'll sleep with him!
Minnelli surrounds the telling of the story by showing the trial of Flaubert. James Mason plays the writer, eloquently "forgiving" his heroine for flaunting the conventions of a hypocritical society. Jennifer Jones possibly had her best performance in this film - not her Oscar winner, SONG OF BERNADETTE. The climatic moment when she decides to destroy herself makes her behave like an animal - and she is a trapped animal at that point. Van Heflin plays the good-natured but boring Charles quite well.
Actually the cast was up to snuff regarding their parts, and somewhat surprising. George Zuuco, for example, is the lawyer (Dubocage) whose clerk Leon (Alf Kjelin) was Emma's second lover. He does not appear frequently but appears reading the papers of a lawsuit that Emma is trying to use to raise money on her father-in-law's prospective estate. Zucco is appalled by it, and angrily confronts Leon about this waste of time for their busy office. But a moment afterward, Zucco suddenly realizes why Leon is doing this. Actually (for a Zucco character) he softens, and says, "Do yourself a favor and forget her my boy." Not helpful for poor Emma, but actually sensible for Leon (who has a future in law).
Madame Bovary is a difficult piece to translate to film. It is very easy for the heroine to become either dislikable: either willfull (the PBS version with Francesca Annis) or peevish (the Isabelle Hubert french version).
What Minnelli so masterfully and ironically captures here is the "dream machine" that drives Madame Bovary (and society) to be dissatisfied with their daily lives, to want and need more and therefore to be perpetually unhappy with what they have. Of course, Minnelli was part of that machine for Hollywood, which is the irony. Here he uses the period-correct analogy of romance novels and magazine ads (and to a lesser extent operas and plays) as vehicles that feed and drive Bovary's dissonance with her reality. (James Mason as Flaubert, too!)
The irony that Flaubert was faulted for denegrating the french woman is fully captured here as well. This version still doesn't get to a real meaty statement of realization that men were not considered immoral or corrupt it they have affairs and forget about their children; but women were. Personally, I think that may have been one of Flaubert's real points - this same behavior would have been tolerated and venerated in a male.
Where this production succeeds so brilliantly over the others I mentioned is in the writing and performance of Emma. She is clearly delineated as being a victim of the commercials of her time - the ultimate consumer, and therefore very identifiable. Jone's own personal charm also factors in here. Her fresh innocence and desire to be liked and to entertain come through the role and make her sweeter. Annis is often a bit self satisfied and Hubbert ice cold, making their Emmas less likable, although perfectly valid and well performed roles, just the difference that writing, production and acting bring to the role.
Minnelli liked women and identified with foibles. He gives a very nice slant to Dr. Bovary, too. (Gives him a little more self knowledge and honor than Flaubert did, which also colors the relationship and the film.) Louis Jordan as her dream man is also colored very nicely here, as being sincerely in love with her and very conflicted. Something he does very well, and this all creates a marvelously satisfying production and package. When you add the great score, you have a very fine film indeed.
# The Breen Office opposed the movie, saying that it had too many controversies and innuendo; everything from the makeup to the kissing scenes had be washed down a bit to pass the censors.
# Director Vincente Minnelli wanted Lana Turner for the role of Emma, but was convinced that a more dignified actress like Greer Garson or Jennifer Jones was needed for the audience to understand the character more.