Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.
Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.
Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.
They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.
The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.
Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.
Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”
The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.
Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.