MADAME BOVARY (1949) B/W 115m. dir: Vincente Minnelli

w/Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan, Christopher Kent, Gene Lockhart, Frank Allenby, Gladys Cooper, John Abbott, Henry Morgan, George Zucco, Ellen Corby, Eduard Franz, Henri Letondal, Esther Somers, Frederic Tozere, Paul Cavanagh, Larry Sims, Dawn Kinney, Vernon Steele

Minnelli's dramatic retelling of Gustave Flaubert's novel of a woman, bored with her marriage, whose life unravels as she has affairs with other men is one of the cinematic jewels in the director's crown. Mason plays the author in the framing device through which the story of Emma Bovary is told, that of Flaubert himself being on trial for writing the realistic novel. Jones is truly fine as Emma, but the film belongs to Minnelli: witness the breathtaking ballroom scene for yourself!

From Directed by Vincente Minnelli by Stephen Harvey: "The conflict between the urge for self-expression and the pressure to conform is a central one for Minnelli; with his pronounced understanding for the opposite sex, he expresses it with a special intensity when his protagonist is female. 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi!' famously declared Gustave Flaubert, a sentiment Minnelli manifestly shares. Yet throughout, he inflects this empathy with an undertone of dispassionate irony. It's there in the detached authorial voice of James Mason, narrating Emma's wayward history; even more so in the way Minnelli defines her visually as an alien figure constantly ill-matched with her surroundings.

"The interplay between these two perspectives is what makes this film so intriguing. Like all movie versions of classic fiction, Minnelli's Bovary subjects its source to a certain amount of compression. For dramatic emphasis, Rodolphe enters the plot at an earlier stage, initiating Emma to the intoxication of a waltz at the gala ball which seals her restlessness with her lot. Certain characters --- Bovary's mother and his first wife --- were eliminated entirely, while the faces of expressive character actors like Gene Lockhart and George Zucco served as shorthand for the collection of small-time poseurs and hypocrites Flaubert had sketched with more amplitude.

"Virtually every episode in which the heroine does not figure directly has been omitted, but the momentum of Emma's fate remains as inexorable as before. Minnelli's intuition and craft preserve Flaubert's spirit by translating it into a filmic language the mass public of his own time can well understand. 'There are thousands of Emma Bovarys. ... There are hundreds and thousands of women who wish they were Emma Bovary and who have been saved from her fate not by virtue but simply by lack of determination,' proclaims Mason/Flaubert in the prologue's courtroom scene. Yet in the person of Jennifer Jones, one thing distinguishes Emma from the common run of women in the world of this movie, and that's star quality. Her beauty, poise, and energy mark her as a creature apart, but also prompt the heroine's fatal delusions. With an actress's born egotism, she imagines herself as the center of a hundred glamorous fantasies; the hitch is that stars don't shape the scenarios assigned to them --- their role is to act them out as vividly as possible. Posing in her incongruously sumptuous wardrobe, Minnelli's Emma muses on 'Love in a Scotch cottage, love in a Swiss chalet,' but she's a leading lady pathetically trapped in the wrong vehicle."

MADAME BOVARY was nominated for an Oscar for Best B/W Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith).

Notes collected for a lecture on the film:

Gustave Flaubert & Woman as Victim:

by 1949: year MADAME BOVARY was released: people's general view of society included psychoanalytic / Freudian ideas:

            this was reflected in films of time: from directors who started in silent era & also from younger directors like Minnelli:

                        Minnelli: generation removed from silent directors D.W. Griffith / King Vidor

in late 1940s: dozens of psychological thrillers: film noirs represent psychoanalytic vision at its most paranoid

            but: in all genres: psychology & keener awareness of sexuality & of how human beings are shaped by ideology:

                        by class, gender, childhood, family, the media

in melodrama: morally simple stories disappeared: no more tales where it's easy to distinguish between right & wrong:

            instead: more shadings to many factors that shape people & more shadowy aspects of fate emerge

Minnelli's MADAME BOVARY: shares theme with STELLA DALLAS: heroine struggles vs. pressures of social prejudice & class:

            but: biggest obstacle to Emma's happiness: her blindness to fact that life & romantic fictions re: life are different

Emma: desires life that's lived vividly: not unreasonable: but those around her make her desire:

            seem frenzied & extreme in proportion: as that desire is thwarted

                        but: her desire is doomed to be thwarted: because she does not temper it with any compromise

Leo Bersani: Emma is: "finally crushed by the weight of an insubstantial imagination which has been unable to discharge itself

            of its fables, which has never found a world"

Emma: even as young girl: harbors: "ridiculous dreams of high romance & impossible love":

            but: like Flaubert: Minnelli: does not blame Emma for her actions:

whole point of Madame Bovary: melodramatic one: to show Emma's struggle vs. world / to try to come to grips with why she suffers

            to measure validity of her desire / to learn lesson her story offers to us:

& in Flaubert's words: to discover what her dreams are made of & where they come from

to find out how this "flower beyond the dunghill" had grown in a place not worthy of her

melodrama of MADAME BOVARY: tries to understand & provide answer to question Emma asks:

            "there's not something wrong with things being beautiful, is there?"

Minnelli: concentrates all Emma's hopes & dreams into quest for beauty: fine clothes & furnishings:

            we see how she loves to love, to dance: Emma: wants to heighten her experience of life thru all her senses

Emma's destiny: established by film's 1st image: book: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert:

            book itself: literally on trial: so film we see becomes fiction within fiction:

                        trial: based on fact: novel: 1st serialized in La Revue de Paris: October thru December 1856:

                        novel: attacked for obscenity by pubic prosecutors: resulting trial: January 1857: made story notorious

            after trial ended: February 1857: Madame Bovary: published as single volume: April 1857: became bestseller

            starting film this way: featuring book: makes Emma's destiny seem already sealed even before it begins

MADAME BOVARY: like Minnelli's other films: depends heavily on mise-en-scène for its meanings:

                        while viewing film:

            look for way he uses decor: costumes / furnishings / especially: mirror shots: to comment on & reinforce story                  

            watch for his use of moving camera: most flamboyant example: scene at Marquis' ball with its glorious, dizzying waltz

            notice how he uses moving camera to connect Emma to images of romantic fantasy on her wall pictures from mags & books:

            these images: form her ideas re: what her life should be

                        this is not old news: still going on: worse now than earlier: films, TV, internet, social networking, etc.

post-screening: the following contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film:


Flaubert's trial: partly used as framing device because might shame Production Code Administration into letting Emma's affairs be implied

James Mason as Flaubert: narrates Emma's story: this continues intermittently thruout film:

            narration: tells us what to think: urges us to consider moral complexity of story: not to be too quick to cast blame

Flaubert: tells us he did not create Emma: "our world --- your world & mine --- created her":

            implicit: blame belongs to ambitious self-satisfied bourgeois men: like pharmacist

how did world create Emma?

early in film: Emma: in her room in farmhouse: camera: pans right: from Emma to wall: covered with illustrations from mags & books:

            Flaubert's voice: tells us: these things "had taught her that the strange was beautiful, & the familiar contemptible"

he tells court: "There are 1000s of Emma Bovarys.  I only had to draw from life.  And there are 100s & 1000s of women who

            wish they were Emma Bovary, & who have been saved from her fate not by virtue, but simply by lack of determination!"

                        her story: meant as lesson for us: we're encouraged to see ourselves in her

Emma Bovary: lives thru men: seeks her identity thru men: this is choice she makes: only relationships with men:

                        where are women in her world?

            film suggests: if only Emma had found right man: man worthy of her love: then she would have been happy

Emma: like many women: but she's exceptional: she has determination: but also she's driven by forces she cannot control

            will not accept impossible gap between the ideal & the reality / the dream & the actuality of life

            her dream: "would lie always beyond the horizon": she tries to pursue the impossible: to make dream become real:

                        while surrounded by poverty, ugliness & mediocrity: but she must try to do it

Emma: start of film: cooking in kitchen for Dr. Bovary: she's beautiful vision: calculated: elegant gown: but: we see her earlier: in kerchief

            after Charles brings Emma to Yonville: he promises: "most beautiful home in Yonville"

Emma's tears after wedding night: Flaubert: it could not have been "otherwise: shabby room, 1st sexual experience

            she's been deluded by media: just like Stella Dallas: falls in love with fantasy prince charming: but: Charles: "only a man":

                        Emma: thinks he can give her better life

Emma: wants to have son: her recognition: only men enjoy unlimited freedom: is this what Emma wants?

            we see Emma "circulated" like currency among various men": 1st: her father's daughter: then: Charles' wife, Rodolphe's lover, etc.

                        she can only define herself by men

            Emma: her soiree: seen thru eyes of Marquis: awareness of class difference torments Emma

Marquis' ball: evening: like 1 of Emma's fantasies pinned to wall: for aristocrats: it's real thing:

            for Emma: dream come true: chance to forget her middle-class reality

            Charles: pathetically out of place among aristocrats

Emma: Marquis: leads her in 1st dance: then: many men: want to dance with her

            moment of rest: she sees herself in mirror: image of loveliness in beautiful gown: surrounded by handsome young men

                        this moment: time seems to stand still: like tableau in stage melodrama or picture on Emma's wall

            but: by being marked as image: framed, static: moment emphasizes its own unreality: image: will evaporate

Emma: meets Rodolphe: literally: sweeps her off her feet: they waltz in swirling delirium: matches Emma's emotional state:

                        captured by Minnelli's swirling camera

            breaking windows: she's "going to faint": dramatic: can't just open windows

            scene: magnificent, fantastic: pushes limits of realism: makes Charles' intrusion on waltz: most shattering moment of Emma's life:

                        she's not same after this: now: she knows what she wants:

Emma: has seen something that helps her articulate her desire: she begins to hate Charles: to blame him: he's obstacle to her freedom

            driving herself mad: finds gap: between: men as she would like them to be: for her: men = life & men as they are: life as it is

            has come to understand men in terms of images: her desire has been formed thru desires of men

Emma knows: if she cannot be man: or have son to realize her desires vicariously:

            or will never have enough money to make her home as beautiful as she wants

            or if marrying Charles ruined her chances for life among aristocracy:

                        then: she might as well be "in love" with Léon or Rodolphe: to be "in love" is to be in fantasy world: realm of image:

                                    fantasy world: can fend off unhappy realities

Emma: knows Charles loves her: but she does not love him: her idea of love: passionate, romantic, unrealistic:

            urges Charles to undertake surgery on clubfoot: knows it's her last chance to gain satisfactory identity thru Charles:

                        "if only you could be famous"

            Rodolphe: plays into Emma's dreams of love: complimenting her face, hands, lips: this is lovemaking!

                        but he's obviously glad she's married

Emma as victim: Emma: has no internal moral dilemmas: for her: question of survival

film: also suggests: Emma's struggle for control over her life: her efforts to gain an identity: will never be achieved thru man

            Emma: reaches no compromise: because she kills herself: is Emma's fate question of "female destiny"?

Emma's choices: whether to die of ennui or to fight it: whether to live or not to live with consuming desire that is not satisfied

MADAME BOVARY: presents us with victim: not just passive & virtuous:implicated in her own undoing: but still victim:

            villain: no longer twirls his mustaches: he's part of "our world"

            develops awareness of ideological effects of media: images & stories:

                        how they help construct human beings: how they make people what they are

Emma: cannot grasp truth: images of fantasy: different from reality: consequences of this inability: disastrous, tragic

            allows herself to be destroyed by impossibility of desire: chooses to believe in images of fantasy

Emma: her ideal self: tied to male gaze: often looks in mirror to "see" herself & register her responses as she imagines Rodolphe sees her

Emma: looks in mirror several times in film: most memorable: mirror at Marquis' ball: Emma: surrounded by men

            these images: culminate when she looks in mirror: almost for last time: mirror cracked: she does not see her better self:

                        mirror: throws back bitter truth at her: "is this where I end up?" / "is it a crime to want things to be beautiful?"

both Rodolphe & L'Heureux: "exploit & destroy her": not because they're malicious:

            they "act in accordance with the law of nature & society" which respects rights of seducers & usurers

Emma: in end: dying from arsenic poisoning / overwhelmed with debts / rejected by Rodolphe / disappointed in Léon:

            finds she can no longer believe in image

Emma: "I can't help it! It's how I am. Save me, Charles": we must believe that Emma is trapped:

            too late to change her desire: to conceive of her place in society differently: her only way out: to end it all

what we can take from MADAM BOVARY: question is not: what a woman really wants:

            real question: how we define "woman": what it means to be man or woman is our responsibility:

                        as Flaubert says: beginning of film" re: Emma: "our world --- your world & mine --- created her ..."

Jennifer Jones: as Emma:

Jones: "achieves conviction thru a kind of absolute intensity in highly mannered displays of Hollywood acting conventions"

            performance: "elaborately wrought": suits melodrama: suits Emma's "passionate, contradictory nature"