FILM / Flaubert, parrot-fashion

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CLAUDE CHABROL, director of Madame Bovary, takes Gustave Flaubert's classic of infidelity and is smotheringly faithful. The film loves the novel rather as Charles Bovary loves Emma, with a stolid complacency that leads to disaster. Emma's tragic fall, through marriage, adultery and debt, is doggedly followed, along with her fleeting moments of elation. Clinging to her coat-tails at every step on the road to Rouen, and ruin, the story is so compressed that the colour seems squeezed out.

As a cynic and a feminist, Chabrol seemed born for Bovary, and he casts the film well. Instead of the usual raving beauty as Emma (most famously Pola Negri and Jennifer Jones) he has a wavering one, Isabelle Huppert. Her face, with its freckles and sullen, heavy nose, is perched between beauty and plainness. It makes believable Emma's yearning for higher things and entrapment in the petite bourgeoisie. Hupert's Emma is largely unsympathetic, more haughty than highly strung. The romanticism and religion behind the housekeeping are shown less than her frustration and faint snobbery. When she moves with Charles to the bigger town of Yonville, she gets off the coach and gives a thin, cautious smile.

She is not gruntled for long, and with a husband like hers we can see why. Jean-Francois Balmer's Charles Bovary is kindly but cringing, with a sallow coarse face and murky twitching eyes. Beside Christophe Malavoy's Rodolphe, Emma's flowing-haired first lover, he looks like a donkey next to a thoroughbred. The clerk, Leon (Lucas Belvaux), whom Emma loves platonically, and then has an affair with when Rodolphe has left her, is less distinguished. His mediocrity may be one of Chabrol's few strokes of irony, an indication of how lowly has become the height of Emma's dreams.

But much of Flaubert's humour and satire is lost. Nothing replaces his sly narration which guys Emma and her reading of Walter Scott as much as the bourgeois life that restricts her. The film takes the worst option with a narrator who butts in like a bar-room bore, his Comedie Francaise monotone showing what a blunt instrument the film is for dissecting character beside Flaubert's scalpel. Chabrol has no cinematic equivalent for the novel's darting in and out of the minds of different characters. He might have used the same sort of speeches to camera that deepened the sexual drama in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, or Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, a film, arguably, closer to Madame Bovary's spirit than this one.

Chabrol's film, shot, for the most part, in a cool, rather serene light, is curiously passionless. He has a problem with the book's sex. To flesh out the innuendo and risk a sort of Emma- nuelle, or leave it unexplicit and seem prissy? He ends up a cross between dirty old man and choirmaster. When Rodolphe seduces Emma, we get a shabby hand under the skirt followed by a rapturous pan to Emma's face and the trees above, with choral accompaniment. It's Huppert who provides the charge: sitting at supper with Charles, she looks drained, yet radiant. Chabrol gets a little surer as Emma gets bolder, and a shot of her astride Leon's back, smoking a cheroot, shows that she's journeyed from stolen pleasure to couldn't-care-less cavorting.

Time hurtles by in Flaubert's novel, making Emma's snatched pleasures the more poignant. But Chabrol never changes pace or flashes back to characters' pasts. His camera is a renegade from BBC costume drama. Only once does it convey Emma's inner turmoil, when we see the view from her sickbed - a frightening blur. More such touches were needed for a novel within hailing distance of modernism. After Jean Renoir's solid 1934 version, Vincente Minnelli in 1949 had a prologue showing Flaubert prosecuted for obscenity. Chabrol might have gone further, rethinking the book with the wit of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot. What he's given us is closer to Flaubert's Turkey.

In Jack the Bear, Danny DeVito plays the host of a TV fright show, who mocks monsters on air, and at home drowns demons with drink. His wife died crashing the car after a marital bust-up, leaving him to look after their two sons. It's not so bad for them, as all the kids on their street seem to be orphans. In this part of Oakland, California, 1972, you're deprived if you don't come from a broken home. Danny tells the boys not to worry since monsters don't exist, except in his act, in which he lodges a meat-cleaver in his skull.

Cue obviously symbolic drama about how the monstrous invades the real world and how children of the Sixties never knew whether to grow up. The menace is provided by next-door neighbour Norman, one of those sad Carson McCullers-like characters who had a prom-night tragedy and has been stunted ever since. You'll recognise him as a psycho from his wispy beard, limp, and baffled scowl, and he turns out to bea Nazi as well. The film,

directed by thirtysomething creator Marshall Herskovitz, doesn't know if it's a kids' parable or an adult shocker. Jack the Bear turns out to be Mum's pet name for her son, and not Danny's ferociously shaggy wig.

Les Blair, whose films are built up from improvisation like Mike Leigh's, is best known for his 1990 Bafta award-winner, News Hounds, a superb satire on the gutter press. With his new film, Bad Behaviour, he moves from Sun writers to Guardian readers. The characters are familiar but not types. Stephen Rea, as a north London townplanner, swaps radical edge for side- swiping drollery. Sinead Cusack, as his wife, has an Irish accent and menopausal crises that don't know if they're coming or going.

The best laughs come from the twins re-tiling the couple's bathroom, Ray and Roy, a pair of dim Cockneys (both played with laid-back puzzlement by Phil Daniels), and the philandering wide-boy contractor, Howard Spink (Philip Jackson), who's ripping them and everybody else off. At one point they confer by mobile phone in the same room. Blair's an unusually quiet satirist and here again he prefers gentle mockery to savage indignation. Some of the details are over the top - like the copy of The Culture of Narcissism by Howard's bed - and there are too many serious chats, but the film is better at avoiding the cliches of mid-life dramas than its characters.

Being at Home With Claude opens with sax and drums on the soundtrack, and sex and death on the screen: two men groaning and sweating to climax, a blow to the jugular, blood spurting over the cooker, and the camera bouncing about as if it were doing aerobics. After this flurry, the murderer (Roy Dupuis) has his confession wrung out of him by a seen-it-all cop (Jacques Godin), and the film feels like the play it started as. It nicely contrasts the scarred, tanned inspector and the pale fallen-cherub hustler. Too often though it's a police procedural shouting match, with predictable pay-offs about killing the thing you love. Not so much a whodunnit as a why-are-we-still-watching.

Cop and a Half and Three Ninja Kids follow the Home Alone formula of sadistic wish-fulfilment: kids hitting hard equal big box-office. Either can be recommended for children, as a punishment, but only for heinous offences.

For details see Film Guide in the Review section, page 78.