Madam Bovary: Claude Chabrol takes on a classic

For many years Madame Bovary belonged to that classic box of literature labelled ‘unfilmable’.  The main reason for this is the complex nature of the novels structure. The power of this novel lies not in the plot, but in the characters relationship to what happens to them. Flaubert’s novel is hailed as one of the earliest masterpieces of realism and is a passionate critique of the bourgeoisie in France and the romanticism that had embodied art, culture and indeed a way of looking at the world.

In retrospect, there is no one better to take on the role of making a film such as this, than one of the members of the French new Wave. In their own way they fought against a certain kind of celluloid romanticism, bringing a kind of verisimilitude to cinema that was to transform the way we looked through the lens ever since. And yet, It was not till 1991 that Chabrol took on the makin of Madame Bovary. By this time the film had been made several times, been adapted for television and even been re-made as Ryan’s daughter, a similar story placed in Ireland. (not bad for a story considered unfilmable)

It is in this film, however, that the spirit of the novel (arguably) is closest to being captured. Chabrol does something the other productions did not do, and that is he brings back the importance to Flaubert of setting. Chabrol makes a sumptuous Madame Bovary – so visually stunning it was nominated for best costume design at the Academy awards the following year – an honour rarely bestowed on foreign films. It won many awards, including many accolades for its star, Isabelle Huppert.  Flaubert put much effort into making sure his depictions of common life were accurate. He chose to set the story in and around the city of Rouen in Normandy, the setting of his own birth and childhood. This care and detail that Flaubert gives to his setting is important in looking at the style of the novel. It is this faithfulness to the mundane elements of country life that has garnered the book its reputation as the beginning of the literary movement known as “literary realism”. Chabrol takes this up very powerfully in the film.

Flaubert also deliberately used his setting to contrast with his protagonist. Emma’s romantic fantasies are strikingly foiled by the practicalities of the common life around her. Flaubert – and Chabrol in the film- uses this juxtaposition to reflect on both subjects. Emma becomes more capricious and ludicrous in the harsh light of everyday reality. By the same token, however, the self-important banality of the local people is magnified in comparison to Emma, who, though impractical, still reflects an appreciation of beauty and greatness that seems entirely absent in thebourgeois class.

Madame Bovary, if you are not familiar with the novel, is the story of a young woman whose mother has died and is living with her father. She grew up in a convent where she grew a deep attachment to romance novels. Emma has decides that this is how life should be / is, and this has her completely unprepared for entering the real world.  When she goes back to her father, she is soon married to Charles Bovary, a very simple and common man.  He is a country doctor by profession, but is, as in everything else, not very good at it. He is in fact not qualified enough to be termed a doctor, but is instead an officier de santé, or “health officer”.

It doesn’t take Emma long to work out she has made a terrible mistake in marrying. Charles means well, but is boring and clumsy, and after he and Emma attend a ball given by the Marquis d’Andervilliers, Emma grows disillusioned with married life and becomes dull and listless. Charles consequently decides that his wife needs a change of scenery, and moves from the village of Tostes into a larger, but equally stultifying market town, Yonville (traditionally based on the town of Ry). Here, Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe; however, motherhood, too, proves to be a disappointment to Emma. She then becomes infatuated with one of the first intelligent young men she meets in Yonville, a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to share her appreciation for “the finer things in life”, and who returns her admiration. Out of fear and shame, however, Emma hides her love for Léon and her contempt for Charles, and plays the role of the devoted wife and mother, all the while consoling herself with thoughts and self-congratulations of her own virtue. Finally, in despair of ever gaining Emma’s affection, Léon departs to study in Paris.

One day, a rich and rakish landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger, brings a servant to the doctor’s office to be bled. He casts his eye over Emma and decides she is ripe for seduction. To this end, he invites Emma to go riding with him for the sake of her health; solicitous only for Emma’s health, Charles embraces the plan, suspecting nothing. They begin a torrid love affair, filled with romance and passion.  Swept away by romantic fantasy, Emma risks compromising herself with indiscreet letters and visits to her lover, and finally insists on making a plan to run away with him. Rodolphe, however, has no intention of carrying Emma off, and ends the relationship on the eve of the great elopement with an apologetic, self-excusing letter delivered at the bottom of a basket of apricots. The shock is so great that Emma falls deathly ill.

She goes to the local Church to meet with the priest and tries to engage him in a conversation about the suffering of women, bored, with nothing to do, and he dismisses her easily, arguing that the only ones who really suffer are the poor. Emma abandons the church as holding any hope for her.

Around this time,  Monsieur Lheureux, a sly and manipulative merchant begins to trick Emma by flattery into having her purchase things she doesn’t need. Emma is able to convince her husband to give her power over the financial affairs of her estate, which she promptly hands to Monsieur Lheureux to pay of debts. Every time the debt is repaid, it is expanded into something else that she doesn’t need, but that makes her feel good, or (in the case of this film) powerful.

Soon Emma and Charles attend the opera, on Charles’ insistence, in nearby Rouen. The opera reawakens Emma’s passions, and she re-encounters Léon who, now educated and working in Rouen, is also attending the opera. They begin an affair. While Charles believes that she is taking piano lessons, Emma travels to the city each week to meet Léon, always in the same room of the same hotel, which the two come to view as their “home.” The love affair is, at first, ecstatic; then, by degrees, Léon grows bored with Emma’s emotional excesses, and Emma grows ambivalent about Léon, who becoming himself more like the mistress in the relationship in that he is paying for nothing and Emma, moving increasingly toward debt, is paying for everything. Crushing levels of debt mount rapidly and Emma, who has kept all of this secret from her husband, is getting more and more fearful.

When Lheureux calls in the Bovary’s debt, Emma pleads for money from several people, including Léon and Rodolphe, only to be turned down. In despair, she swallows arsenic and dies an agonizing death she hoped would be at least glamorous; even the romance of suicide fails her. Charles, heartbroken, abandons himself to grief. He dies a few years later, and Berthe is sent to live with her grandmother who also dies soon after that. The final comments of the film are that Bertha, in desperate poverty, has gone to work in a cotton mill.

Post feminist Emma Bovary is open to far broader interpretation than pre feminist Emma Bovary and Chabrol does try to capture some of this in his film. We do feel compassion for Emma. In the novel, Emma is the symbol of bourgeoise pride, foolishly falling into the hands of those who would do her wrong simply be her refusal to see things as they really are. Flaubert famously claimed that he is Emma Bovary.  However, post feminist Emma Bovary, can perhaps carry a little more responsibility for what happened to her.  There has been a lot of discussion around this character to ‘rescue’ her from herself – she’s been called clinically depressed and bi-polar. From what I know of Flaubert, his Emma Bovary was never meant to be a criticism of ‘females’, therefore I see no reason to defend women from an imagined attack. Indeed Emma Bovary suffered from something that women DO suffer from today – and that is a romanticized ideal of the world that has no connection with reality or the consequences they experience. However, this behaviour is not at all restricted to women – one can argue that men suffer the exact same problem.

Huppert’s Bovary is a nervous woman. She still has the regulation sense of entitlement (an appalling sense of entitlement) that is the hallmark of Flaubert’s criticism, but Chabrol adds a contemporary edge here. Huppert’s Emma is  selfish. She is self obsessed to the point of inability to function. This gives the character a post-modern edge. Everything she does is on behalf of relieving her internal angst .  In other words the benefit in love for Emma, the benefit in spending, is to avoid the knowledge that life is meaningless and there is no point in her existence. Chabrol implies very discreetly that this is where her depression stems from. In the novel, Flaubert highlights the relationships between people, and Emma’s (and Charles) many warnings against her behaviour that she refuses to listen to. Chabrol sublimates this aspect of the novel, so that Homais is merely a good friend (if a little painful at times), Madame Homais is barely present (she is Emmas foil in the novel) Boulanger is merely roguish and Lheureux is just a shifty shop keeper.

Chabrol’s Emma needs introspection where Flaubert’s Emma needed to wake up and smell the coffee. Here we have conflicting structures and styles. Chabrol has Emma suffering from existential angst. She needs to accept the burden of reality, the futility of existence and find happiness where she can. Her daydreams cause her and others  pain, therefore they need to stop.

Chabrol and Flaubert agree on the universal aspect of Madame Bovary, however, and that is the refusal of the Bourgeoisie to acknowledge the impact they have on those around them. In a terrible scene, Charles Bovary is convinced to ‘cure’ a local poor lad of his club foot. He cuts a tendon, which instantly goes gangrenous, and results in the leg having to be amputated. Chabrol pits many future shots of Emma (who wanted Charles to perform the operation in the hope it would make him – and therefore her – famous) pitted against the, now one-legged boy, still struggling to help her with her bags. The repeated use of a blind man, at whom Emma throws money in the hope he will go away, is another example of the attitude to the poor.

All in all, this is a beautiful film and the tackling of a very difficult subject. It reminded me of a stunning novel I now want to read again, in the light of Chabrol’s view of Emma Bovary.