The figure of Emma Bovary, the central character of Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary, caused both cheers of approval and howls of outrage upon its publication, and continues to fascinate modern literary critics and film makers. Is she a romantic idealist, striving for perfect love and beauty in dull bourgeois society? Is she a willful and selfish woman whose pursuit of the good life brings about her own destruction and that of her family? Or is she, like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer, a rebel against the repressive, patriarchal society in which she finds herself? Is she, perhaps, a bit of all three?
Two prominent modern film directors have brought Emma Bovary's story to the screen--Vincente Minnelli in 1949 and, more recently, Claude Chabrol in 1992. This paper will study these two versions of Flaubert's novel and how each director employs and manipulates the medium of film to bring a work of fiction to the screen.
The films of Minnelli and Chabrol represent two radically different approaches to Flaubert's novel. In general, Minnelli tends to romanticize the story, even sentimentalize it, making Emma much more of a sympathetic heroine than seems to be the case in Flaubert's text. Much of the ironic tone of the novel is lost. Minnelli also omits from his film all scenes which are not directly connected with Emma. The harsh realism and ironic social commentary which underlie Flaubert's novel are ignored for the most part. Chabrol, on the other hand, attempts to be scrupulously faithful to the text and spirit of the novel. The director claims that virtually every word of dialogue in the film was taken directly from Flaubert...
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...ot literature" (Kael 407). This remark might aptly be applied to Chabrol's adaptation of Madame Bovary. She also remarks about Chabrol's work in general that "there is a remarkable consistency of tone; everything seems on the same level of interest to Chabrol....nothing is very exciting, just as nothing is boring" (407). To Kael, Chabrol is "a sublime craftsman, the ideal conventional movie maker" (54).
But, in the final analysis, Chabrol is closer to Flaubert's artistic techniques. He lets the story speak for itself, and the viewers must form their own judgments about the story of Madame Bovary.
Harvey, Stephen. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Kael, Pauline. Deeper Into Movies. New York: Little Brown, 1973.
Russell, Alan, trans. Madame Bovary. New York: Penguin Books, 1950.
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