'Bovary' Returns to Film
NEW YORK — GUSTAVE FLAUBERT'S novel "Madame Bovary," published in 1856, has long been hailed as a masterpiece of realism. It is also considered a founding work of modernism in the arts - using a combination of detachment and irony to tell of a country doctor's wife caught between middle-class banality and the glamorous excitement that fills her dreams.
The story has held strong appeal for filmmakers, as well, and a pair of new motion-picture versions have recently arrived on American screens: a dutiful retelling by French director Claude Chabrol, and a visionary adaptation by Russian director Alexander Sokurov.
They aren't the first cineastes to film the story, of course. One earlier version was made in 1934 by French director Jean Renoir, who emphasizes the claustrophobic quality of Emma Bovary's life with frequent shots of characters trapped near walls or framed in barely opened doorways.
More familiar is the Hollywood version of 1949, in which Jennifer Jones plays a gorgeous Emma under Vincente Minnelli's direction. This version includes scenes from Flaubert's trial for writing an "indecent" novel, and closes with a declaration that his acquittal was a great step forward for freedom of speech. Amusingly, however, the movie itself censors and distorts many of the book's most important scenes.
Such silliness doesn't make Minnelli's version a bad movie, but it does wipe out the picture's value as a reflection of Flaubert's intent. Infidelity to Flaubert is not a sin of Mr. Chabrol's new version, which hews closely to the novel. This isn't surprising, since Chabrol has emulated Flaubert in his movie career - which began in the New Wave movement some 30 years ago - by exploring the decadence and dissatisfaction hidden in middle-class life.
Chabrol has also worked with actress Isabelle Huppert on such diverse films as "Violette Noziere" and "Story of Women," and their collaboration on "Madame Bovary" marks an ambitious culmination of their partnership. Happily, she gives a splendid performance, skillfully avoiding either a frivolous indulgence or a moralizing condemnation of Emma's failings.
Chabrol matches this carefully thought-out portrayal with an equally careful depiction of Emma's surroundings, capturing the daily realities of 19th-century provincial France with an eye attuned to both the quiet beauties and the boring repetitiveness of this milieu.
Where he does not succeed, however, is in bringing new and vibrant life to Flaubert's story. The plot and characters unfold as they should, but there's little sense of discovery to the screenplay or the visual style. Aside from Ms. Huppert's good work, the movie is far less lively and vastly less provocative than Flaubert's novel.
'SAVE and Protect," the Russian version of "Madame Bovary" directed by Mr. Sokurov, has provocations to spare. For one, Emma is played by Cecile Zervudacki, a distinctly unglamorous actress who resembles a hard-working member of the Pina Bausch dance troupe more than a well-tended movie star. This makes her exactly right for Sokurov's theory that Emma is no mere waif overwhelmed by fantasies, but bears great responsibility for the consequences that overtake her.
IN keeping with his sardonic view of the story, Sokurov pictures Emma's love affairs in unappetizing terms, complete with strung-out shots of bodies writhing in joyless passion. By the end of the film, Emma almost resembles an old-style Hollywood vampire, having sucked her own life dry of whatever small contentments it might have possessed.
Sokurov alters the ending of her tale accordingly: She is laid to rest in no fewer than three coffins, one inside another, as if her spirit might rise again and unsettle her hapless community even more.
Sokurov doesn't clarify many aspects of Emma's story, assuming that most spectators already know its basic outline, and he takes many liberties with the novel's particulars. Yet he maintains an underlying faithfulness to Flaubert, manifested in subtle and sometimes eccentric ways. Flaubert switches into the present tense at the end of the novel, for instance, as if to suggest the timelessness of Emma's history. In a remarkably similar vein, Sokurov brings hints of the 20th century into the movie's last s cenes, including an automobile charging unexpectedly across the screen.
Call this inconsistency or call it poetic license, but either way it seems appropriate. "Save and Protect" is bold and disturbing in ways Flaubert would surely have liked.