There are many, many film and television adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s seminal novel, Madame Bovary. The French (not surprisingly, since France is the novel’s country of origin) and the British regularly pump out new ones every few years, usually starring the respective countries’ current up-and-coming actress. I’ve seen many of them, and I’m going to say something that may enrage French fans of the book:
I think director Vincent Minnelli’s 1949 film version stands above the rest.
Perhaps it takes an American to truly understand both Emma Bovary’s desire for upward mobility and her almost maniacal rampant consumerism. Emma marries a doctor because she believes it will elevate her status in life. How many American mothers have encouraged their daughters to do just that?
Madame Bovary is a beautifully shot film, with Emma’s finery outdoing even Scarlett O’Hara’s antebellum gear. The contrast of the story’s simple villagers with the aristocrats is shown most blatantly in two set pieces: a wedding and a ball. The wedding devolves into a wild and ugly mob. The ball is elegant and sumptuous—until the servants are forced to break the windows to cool off the overheated dancers.
The story is very well-known, but in quick summary: Emma, the daughter of a farmer (Jennifer Jones) catches the attention of a young doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) who attends to her father after an accident. Convinced he will rescue her from the drudgery of her life, Emma marries him. Settling in a small village called Yonville, Emma quickly becomes dissatisfied with her lot. She makes her husband go deep into debt to support the lifestyle she wants, and eventually takes on lovers, including an aristocrat (Louis Jordan) who jilts her on the eve of their elopement. She suffers a mental breakdown. While she recovers under Charles’ care, her spending habits eventually lead to her and her husband’s ruin.
This was pretty salacious stuff for the 1940s, so to placate the censors, the film is bookended by scenes of author Flaubert’s (James Mason) obscenity trial, where he defends his portrayal of Emma Bovary and women like her.
I feel another way the film is superior to other versions is because Charles Bovary is portrayed in a much more complex manner. He’s a doctor, but a mediocre one, and he knows it. Emma makes the mistake of believing that being a doctor means he is in some way above the other lower and middle-class people they know. In fact, the movie goes out of the way to point out that Charles can never rise above being a simple country doctor. (Even more brutally, it shows that the lower classes were lucky to get even a mediocre doctor. In the novel, the local pharmacist takes over Charles’ practice when he is forced to leave town.)
His limited skills, however, do not deter Emma. Desperate to find a reason to love her husband so she will no longer be dissatisfied with her life, she pressures him to try a procedure recently invented to cure club foot. Convinced he will receive the Legion of Honor if he is successful, she convinces him to try it out on a local boy (Harry Morgan). With the patient on the table, he walks away, refusing to risk the boy’s life. Emma is enraged and once again dejected.
This, by the way, is different from both the novel and many of the other adaptations. In those, he goes through with the operation and botches it, ending up with the boy having to have his leg amputated. Again, this makes Charles a much more complex character, who refuses to give into his wife’s ego, even though he is desperate to win back her love.
When she has her breakdown, he attends to her in a way that perhaps shows he’s not such an incompetent doctor after all. Even though he knows deep down about her affairs, he is careful always to let her know that he has never seen proof, so she is aware their marriage remains intact.
When the notes for her debts are called in, their life crumbles within a day. After a failed final appeal to her lovers for money, Emma eats arsenic. As Charles begs her to hold on for another doctor to arrive the next day, she laments, “Oh, Charles, why are you always trying to save me?”
I have to admit that Jennifer Jones has never been one of my favorite actresses, but here her beauty and charisma work to the character’s advantage (it’s totally believable so many men fall under her spell). It’s Heflin, however, who shines in the less showy role, in my opinion. In most versions of the story, I want to slap the dull, overbearing husband. In this one, I feel for him.