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Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary (1857), the story of a provincial Frenchwoman whose romantic longing leads to adultery and tragedy, ushered in a new age of realism in literature, and scandalized French society. Flaubert was brought to trial for obscenity, and narrowly escaped conviction. Madame Bovary had been filmed several times, including a 1934 French version directed by Jean Renoir, and a 1937 German adaptation starring Pola Negri. But no major American studio had ever attempted to film the novel, fearing censorship constraints, until MGM took on the task.
In Madame Bovary (1949), producer Pandro S. Berman, director Vincente Minnelli, and screenwriter Robert Ardrey finessed the issue of Emma Bovary's adultery not only by dealing with the lovemaking very discreetly, but by framing the story with Flaubert's trial. As Flaubert, James Mason explains to the judges why Madame Bovary is a tragic figure who pays dearly for her sins. Berman and Minnelli had Lana Turner in mind for the role of Emma, but industry censors suggested that Turner's erotic screen persona might not make her the wisest choice. They suggested that the filmmakers choose someone with a more ladylike image.
Jennifer Jones had won an Academy Award for playing a saint in The Song of Bernadette (1943). But she also projected a neurotic intensity onscreen that Berman and Minnelli thought would be right for the part. MGM began negotiations with David O. Selznick, to whom Jones was under contract. Selznick liked the idea, but on the condition that MGM also use two of his contract actors in the film, both playing Emma Bovary's lovers: Louis Jourdan, and Swedish actor Alf Kjellin, who made his American film debut in Madame Bovary under the name of Christopher Kent. Van Heflin, playing Emma's husband, was the only MGM contract actor to play a leading role in Madame Bovary.
Selznick, Jones' mentor and soon-to-be husband, was not involved in the production of Madame Bovary. But as usual, he tried to micromanage every aspect, firing off lengthy daily memos on everything from the script to the shape of his beloved's eyebrows. Berman and Minnelli gave in on the eyebrows, and ignored the rest. The high-strung Jones, meanwhile, was delivering an exquisite performance, but sometimes she would get too deeply into character. In a scene with the little girl playing her daughter, the girl refused to be affectionate toward Jones. Jones reacted by running off the set, crying, "she doesn't like me, she thinks I'm terrible. Nobody likes me." Not only were Emma Bovary's neuroses mirrored by the film's leading lady, they also reflected the turmoil of Minnelli's private life, as his wife Judy Garland collapsed in a mental breakdown, and Minnelli was too involved in the film to give her the attention she required.
The production values for Madame Bovary were as lavish as MGM's new austerity would allow. The art department recycled the studio's English village set into a French one so cleverly that Madame Bovary was nominated for an Academy Award for art direction and set design. If the elegant furnishings and Emma's wardrobe were a tad too grand for provincial French society, well, that was the MGM way, and as it happened, they suited Emma's grandiose fantasies.
They certainly suited the centerpiece of Madame Bovary, the breathtaking ball sequence. As Stephen Harvey noted in his study of Minnelli's work, Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the director planned it as carefully as any production number in his musicals. He had composer Miklos Rozsa compose what Minnelli called a "neurotic waltz with an accelerating tempo" to which Jones and Jourdan whirled around in a dazzling, vertiginous dance, the camera swirling with them faster and faster. Minnelli said it was among the most difficult sequences he'd ever directed. Time Magazine called it "a wonderfully skilled projection of Emma's half-swooning sense of her own seductiveness." That review, and many others, were equally rapturous about the film's directing, script, Robert Planck's masterful cinematography, and Jones' performance. There have been later television and film adaptations of Madame Bovary, notably Claude Chabrol's 1991 version starring Isabelle Huppert, but most critics agree that none of them convey the passion, yearning and tragedy of Emma Bovary as poignantly as this one.
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Editor: Ferris Webster
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith; sets, Edwin B. Willis, Richard A. Pefferle
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Jennifer Jones (Emma Bovary), James Mason (Gustave Flaubert), Van Heflin (Charles Bovary), Louis Jourdan (Rodolphe Boulanger), Alf Kjellin [as Christopher Kent] (Leon Dupuis), Gene Lockhart (Homais), Frank Allenby (L'Heureux), Gladys Cooper (Mme. Dupuis), Ellen Corby (Felicite)
BW-115m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri