THE heroine of Gustave Flaubert's greatest novel, ``Madame Bovary,'' continues to exert a strong attraction for filmmakers. Many gifted directors have adapted her story, from Hollywood master Vincente Minnelli to French innovator Claude Chabrol and, most recently, the great Alexander Sokurov, whose Russian version is called ``Save and Protect.''
Now the tale has been adapted by Manoel de Oliveira, who is widely regarded as the greatest of all Portuguese filmmakers - quite an achievement, since Portugal has a particularly robust and inventive movie scene. Based on a novel by Agustina Bessa-Luis called ``Valley of Abraham,'' his drama has earned ecstatic responses from audiences at the Cannes and New York filmfests.
The story of Madame Bovary revolves around a woman whose wildly romantic dreams far outstrip the dull realities of her provincial life as dutiful spouse of a small-time medical practitioner, and eventually lead her to a melodramatic death.
The question underlying ``Valley of Abraham'' is both simple and fascinating. What if a modern-day woman found herself in Madame Bovary's situation, fully understood the dangers and temptations she faced, but proceeded with her flowery fantasies nevertheless - pursuing them to their ultimate conclusion, even though she's read Flaubert's novel and knows perfectly well the tragic destiny that awaits her?
An important reason why Madame Bovary has drawn so many filmmakers is that cinema manufactures exactly the sort of world that Emma inhabits - always teetering between florid illusion and drab actuality, and habitually afraid of committing itself to either. Many great directors understand and explore this conundrum, and De Oliveira has seized on it as a major theme in his work.
Examples include such recent films as ``The Cannibals,'' which mingles opera and horrific farce, and ``Non, or, The Commander's Vain Glory,'' which leaps about in time, space, and philosophy.
IN De Oliveira's hands, the story of modern-day Emma is as knowing, ironic, and self-aware as the heroine's own actions.
He collaborates with her in constructing the very dreams and reveries that are destined to undo her; yet there's nothing mean-spirited in this, since both filmmaker and character clearly revel in the beauty and romance they create along the way.
When she ultimately meets her death, it's almost comical in its long-prepared abruptness, and we know she would have smiled along with us at its mixture of the sad, the wistful, and the silly.
De Oliveira receives help from an expert cast in ``Valley of Abraham,'' most notably from Leonor Silveira, who plays Emma with exquisite panache. The literate screenplay is by De Oliveira, and he also edited the film with Valerie Loiseleux.