One hopes that a film version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary will have something of the excitement of the 1856 original, whose realism refreshed the art form of the novel. Jean Renoir’s film is one of his string of 1930s masterpieces. The opening is jaw-droppingly brilliant: the camera—in this instance, Emma Bovary’s soul—turns leftward, revealing a patch of trees, in Normandy, on the grounds of country doctor Charles Bovary, eventually stopping at a clearing that allows us to see and hear, in long-shot, farm animals close to the modest house. In a single shot wife Emma’s sparkling dreaminess passes into her squawking/oinking marital reality, where the camera gets stuck.
Renoir’s sensitivity to interior space maintains the film’s great (because functional) beauty. We glimpse Emma at a distance through doorways; when Charles shows her the secondhand carriage he has bought her, even the outdoors is constrained by the open window frame through which we watch them. When her mother-in-law, who lives with the Bovarys, insults Emma, who orders her to leave the house, an archway frames the depth of blackness into which Charles’s mother disappears—a void also threatening to absorb Emma, who stands right at its edge. Women are so vulnerable in this world—a point that the recent death of Charles’s first wife underscores.
The downward trajectory of Emma’s life (adultery, financial stress, sickness, death) is rendered in all its details without excess of melodrama. Thus we are able to see, calmly, the role that money plays in ruining people’s lives. Valentine Tessier is superb as Madame Bovary—not an enigma, like Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol’s fine version (1991), or a sentimentalized, mouth-twitching neurotic, like Jennifer Jones, whose ineptitude reduces Vincente Minnelli’s version (1949) to grating soap opera and inadvertent farce.
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