Emma Bovary, nee Rouault (Isabelle Huppert), feels trapped and dissatisfied in one way or another throughout her life, and yet for almost every moment of the film she leads a pictorially enviable existence. It may be, for instance, that she longs to escape from her father's farmhouse into marriage and a wider world, but as we watch we can't share her restlessness. The bread looks delicious, the furniture agreeable, and the peasants in their smocks provide a pleasing folkloric backdrop. Emma, for all her attractiveness and impulsive flirting doesn't stand out from her surroundings. Why can't she be satisfied with what satisfies our eyes?
This sets a pattern: we are seduced by images, and have to be disabused by a voice-over telling us of Emma's boredom, restlessness or sense of futility. Sitting there in the dark, we find the intoxications more real than the hangovers, which is hardly true to Flaubert's sense of things.
Part of the problem is that the book is full of somehow lacerating details, which a loving director must reproduce but can't help transforming into their opposites: there's no such thing as a dull antique. Chabrol's recreation of the past is full-blooded and therefore irrelevant, since the whole point is the thin blood of romantic dreams, the way that the unreal drives out the real without being able to take its place. Particularly when Matthieu Chabrol's music is at its most yearning, this Madame Bovary has a certain Merchant-Ivory tinge.
The major dynamic of Flaubert's book, and the single theme that makes it most haunting, is that things which are advertised as opposites (most famously, marriage and adultery) are experienced by the heroine as being essentially the same. This is a world in which cures are no different to diseases - and Emma (splendidly rendered at one point in the subtitles as Edna) is married to a doctor.
Chabrol's screenplay may wish to preserve this pessimistic analysis, but his camera consistently undoes it. Emma wants her life to be like the grand ball she attends early in her married life. She gets a whiff of a wider world and its way: sophisticated conservations, assignations smoothly made and apparent licence given to female wishes - footmen break a window because a woman is feeling the heat. Emma tries to live by these borrowed codes, but there is no one to reglaze the metaphorical windows she breaks in her marriage.
Where life seemed briefly to promise Emma balls and more balls, it delivers instead an agricultural show. But here the equations begin to break down in the film. Recreations of high society are ten a penny in costume dramas, but a careful reconstruction of a 19th-century agricultural show in provincial France is, frankly, a bit of a treat. True, the prefect has sent a deputy who makes a speech of stunning dullness. But his waistcoat and trousers are richly red, and the banners are eye-catching. Meanwhile, hidden from view, Emma flirts with aristocratic Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy), representative of the ballroom world to which she aspires. Chabrol dutifully cuts between the interior (blue hangings with fleur-de- lis) and the exterior (that red waistcoat), to consolidate Flaubert's own ironical cutting (an adulterous flirtation punctuated with announcements for Best Merino Ram or Best Pig - shared prize) and we get the message that Rodolphe's rhetorical self-preservation is as stereotyped as the speech outside, but the nuances of pessimism get lost.
When life is passively awful - that is, for most of the story - Chabrol short-changes his beloved author. Charles Bovary, for instance, (Jean- Francois Balmer) has a hangdog charm that is surplus to requirements, reminiscent of a younger Philippe Noiret, so that he persists in the film as a potentially lovable partner for Emma. We don't see him through her intolerant eyes, and his sincerity lacks the required nightmarish quality. But when life is actively awful, the film greatly improves. The sequence where Charles, urged on by the pharmacist, decides to attempt a state-of- the-art operation on a young man's club foot to bring glory to the town, is as gruelling as it should be in its pain and grotesquerie.
As long as Emma is able to defer the consequences of her actions, the film hangs fire. It may be too, that Huppert plays the role with an inappropriate feminist consciousness: sometimes her performance seems to be saying, 'see how women were distorted when society failed to accommodate their needs'. This misses the heroine's monstrousness, which is the key to her pathos. Emma Bovary ends up as a tragic character without ever being authentic. When finally the sins that seemed so abstract - getting a power of attorney from her husband and running up debts - are shown to be as solid and substantial as bailiffs, the film becomes in its own way extraordinary. In her desperate last interview with Rodolphe, Emma is perversely magnificent. Nothing that she says is true; this is not an ex-lovers' wrangle but a last ditch appeal for money, and every accusation she flings at him ('poor people shouldn't buy tortoiseshell clocks]') applies more forcibly to her. But she has moved at last beyond sincerity and insincerity, and the speeches that never worked when she meant them acquire a new power.
Chabrol has said he tried to make a film that Flaubert could have made himself. That was never on the cards: the relationship between audience and screen is so much more passive than the one between reader and book, which matters most when the book is analytical, sour and self-conscious. But Chabrol's film is a labour of love, and it's hardly his fault that the eye is not a part of the mind.
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