Madame Bovary Review

This disc is also available as part of The Claude Chabrol Collection alongside Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Le Boucher, Juste avant la nuit, Les Noces rouges, Nada and Que La Bête Meure.

When it was published in 1856, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary scandalised French society and was the subject of a famous court trial. The author was eventually acquitted and the novel now maintains a strong reputation as one of the foundations of modernism in French literature. It has been the subject of a number of films, none of which are as faithful to the actual novel as this 1991 version by Claude Chabrol.

The daughter of a country squire, Emma Roualt marries Dr Charles Bovary, but finds that married life doesn’t live up to her romantic ideals. Madame Bovary’s introduction to society at a Viscount’s ball fills her imagination and her desire to escape from her mundane existence. She lives out her romantic fantasies in several love affairs, but her extravagance threatens to bring about her ruin.

The film adheres closely to Flaubert’s original text, moving along at a brisk pace and occasionally making use of a narrator to fill in authorial details. All the key scenes are here – the ball at La Vaubyessard, the agricultural show, Les Comices, - and are brought vividly to life on the screen by director and cast.

Isabelle Huppert looks a little too old to play the young Emma Roualt at the start of the film, but she is perfect as Madame Bovary – her classic beauty and fine features are very much suited to period drama. Huppert is one of France’s finest actresses and here she is at her best, playing a character that is suited to her strengths as an actress, maintaining a coolness of expression while her eyes show an active, feverish imagination at work. Jean-François Balmer is also well cast and performs admirably as the dull and ineffectual Charles.

For all its faithfulness to the letter of the novel, I find that it is less faithful to the spirit of the book. Madame Bovary’s tragedy was that she was surrounded by mediocrity while aspiring to something higher, yet she lived in a time when there were no models for a liberated woman other than what she read in cheap romance novels. Thus in the film we get a sense of her folly, but not the irony of her tragedy.The vehement anti-clerical sentiments expressed in Flaubert’s original novel are also totally absent from Chabrol’s film. As the author evidently felt the influence of religion to have been a major factor contributing to the subjugation of women of the period, this is another surprising omission.

Finally, the film is rather short on passion and quite coy in its love scenes. This leads to the curious situation where Flaubert’s nineteenth century novel is actually more passionate, satirical, ironical and biting than this comparatively tame nineteen-nineties film version.

Arrow appear to have a given the film an anamorphic transfer at the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Framing seems a little tight however, as Chabrol films often do. It’s possible that the film has been transferred at 1.77:1, but with the vigorous overscanning on my television it’s hard to say. The picture quality however is not the best. Colours are a quite faded and the image is a touch soft with a slight grain, leading to an overall flatness. Outdoor scenes fare better, but indoor night-time scenes are totally washed-out with a hazy green cast. Shifting digital artefacts can be seen on backgrounds. There are few marks on the print so otherwise picture quality is just about average. Subtitles are removable.

The sound is also a little flat in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It’s adequate, deep and reverberating at times, but it doesn’t have much higher range than that. It doesn’t really need much of a range, but it should be better than this.

There are a few strange things to note about the extras on this DVD. First of all there are thirty chapters, but the numbering on the scene selection doesn’t correspond to the chapter numbers on the disc. The MK2 logo has its own chapter, knocking the numbering out by one from there on. Secondly, all the extras are in French without any subtitles. This is common on French DVDs, but it’s the first time I’ve seen this on a UK R2 release. It’s not an error, as this is clearly indicated on the Additional Material section of the DVD. The extras appear to be identical to the French MK2 edition of the film.

Extract from Jean Renoir’s ‘Madame Bovary’ (1933) (3:13)
A short excerpt of the Les Comices scene from Renoir’s version of the film is shown.

Presentation of the film by Joel Magny (2:24)
A short introduction to the film examining Chabrol’s reasons for making the film and his choice of cast.

Claude Chabrol explains five movie scenes
The director provides a commentary in French only for 5 key scenes in the film. There is no timing on this, but it runs to a good 40 minutes or so. There are cut-aways to the director at the start and end of each scene. This is quite good and probably more interesting than a full scene by scene commentary. The director mainly talks about how he translates Flaubert’s descriptions into images, keeping as faithful as possible to the original text. "I don’t know if it is any good", Chabrol says about the ball scene, "but it is very Flaubertian". Actually it is very good, but it is also quite telling about the director’s intentions.He also mentions the author’s cinematic montage editing of the Les Comices scene, which he has faithfully and comically reproduced right down to the exact text of the novel. In another scene between Emma and Boulanger, the director shows how he used different coloured backgrounds in one scene to convey mood and character – warm red backgrounds to show Emma’s romanticism, and blue to show the harsh realism of Rodolphe’s reactions. One other observation I made here was that watching the scenes without subtitles, they came across much more forcefully. It is as if reading the subtitles, for this film, distract from seeing how well the lines are delivered.

The Claude Chabrol collection
Ten trailers for the director’s films from the humorous mock press conference with Chabrol for Inspector Lavardin (1986) to Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000). Again all of them are unfortunately in French only.

Extract from "Bonnes Adresses du Passe" (1962) (10:17)
This is from an old French television series (it looks older than 1962), that apparently visits famous locations. In this edition the programme visits the Croisset Pavillion Flaubert where the author lived, close to Rouen. Clips of Renior’s 1933 film and Claude Barma’s 1953 version of Madame Bovary are included here for comparison.

Theatrical trailer
Presented in 1:66:1 letterbox. I get the impression that the quality of the actual feature may have fared a little better if it has been presented like this in letterbox.

The Faces of Madame Bovary
This is a short 2 minute news report on the location shooting for the Les Comices scene in the 1991 film. As this is also where Renoir shot his film, several locals who appeared in the 1933 film are interviewed.

Cast and crew
Filmographies are included for the main cast and director. Rather stiffly translated English biographies are included for Chabrol and Huppert, and there is also a short 4 minute video-clip interview with Huppert in French, talking about her character in the film.

Although this DVD looks like exactly the same package as the French MK2 edition, reviews of the French disc report fine definition, strong contrast, full bright colours and a strong musical soundtrack. This is definitely not the transfer we have here. Madame Bovary is a good film, skilfully made and apparently faithful to the source, but it does lack the passion and bite of Flaubert’s pen. This DVD is available at a budget price, so it is certainly worth a look.

7 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 13/06/2018 17:57:26

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