Friday Editor’s Pick: Madame Bovary (1949)

by on September 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Oct  7 at 3:00, 6:00, 9:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


The Complete Vincente Minnelli,” deemed “a major event” by Joe McElhaney, continues through Nov 2.


McElhaney in his Alt Screen feature:

Madame Bovary (1949) offers what is arguably the greatest of all of Minnelli’s parties, the musical and melodramatic set piece (over eight minutes long) of the ball at Vaubyessard. The entire sequence is built upon a set of escalating visual and musical motifs: the play with fabric (with Emma’s ornate gown at the center of this), the contrasting rhythms and movements of the social dances (culminating with the eroticism of the waltz) and, most important, glass — the chandeliers, the glasses of alcohol, the mirror, and the windows. In a moment of supreme delirium, these windows are eventually shattered by chair-wielding butlers in response to Emma’s anxiety about fainting due to the heat while she is waltzing. In the midst of all this, Minnelli also establishes a contrast between the world of the visible (Emma as the center of attention, being looked at and admired by all, including herself as she stares lovingly at her own image in the mirror), and a world of the invisible (her husband Charles, not only ignored but barely even seen by anyone).



Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

The fearsome intensity of Jennifer Jones’s performance in the title role is the heart of Vincente Minnelli’s rapturously melodramatic 1949 adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel—and its brain is the ingenious framework by the screenwriter Robert Ardrey. The movie opens with the 1857 trial of Flaubert for obscenity, and the author (played by James Mason) defends his book from the witness stand, distilling its meticulous style and elaborate narrative into a brisk story that the movie then depicts. Minnelli infuses the tale of a young woman’s shattered romantic dreams with a romantic fury; in lieu of a broad social panorama, he delivers a hotly involuted inner crisis that he brings to the screen with a breathtaking range of effects, including vertiginous pans and travelling shots, searing closeups, images in mirrors, and sudden shifts of focus. Except for the horses, the frocks, and the slightly stilted dialogue, Minnelli’s vision of Emma Bovary in Yonville could have been transplanted to any small American postwar town in the form of a film noir.


Elliott Stein for The Village Voice:

Bovary stars Jennifer Jones as the fatally romantic Emma, a dreamer like so many of Minnelli’s heroines. Jones beautifully underplays her and makes an extremely moving figure of this faithless wife and negligent mother. The audacious Ophülsian ballroom sequence, set to the tune of Miklós Rózsa’s “neurotic waltz,” is one of the great moments of Minnellian mise-en-scène. It may be heresy to say so, but this lovely made-in-Hollywood adaptation seems more successful than the standard French screen versions by Jean Renoir (1933) and Claude Chabrol (1991) of Flaubert’s work.



Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for The House Next Door:

In the middle of Vincente Minnelli’s version of Madame Bovary (1949), Jennifer Jones’ Emma is at a ball and surrounded by admiring men. The country girl who has read so many romance novels is now seemingly in the midst of one of her stories, and she behaves like a freed prisoner; after a flirtatious laugh, she catches sight of herself in an ornate gilded mirror, and Minnelli cuts to the sumptuous image she sees, then cuts back to a medium shot of her reaction. Jones’ gentle, apple-cheeked face gradually becomes hard, proud, even calculating: it’s a revelation of her narcissistic inner nature as a performer. Whether she was really so simple off the screen is a matter of conjecture that is probably answered by those moments in Carrie and Madame Bovary when her mask of propriety drops.Toward the end of it, Jones waltzes around a room by herself, trying to recreate her ruined triumph at the ball, and this is another indelible image of her: lost in a daydream, frustrated, marked by fate.


Armond White for the NY Press:

Despite the conventional prejudice against Hollywood melodrama as an inferior form, Minnelli showed how tasteful, subtle and complex movie melodrama could be—usually through his expressive compositions and visual textures.


Madame Bovary makes this argument special by subjecting a literary masterpiece to a fully imagined Hollywood adaptation. He finds precise images for Flaubert’s prose that are also expressive of his own artistic sensibility. The ballroom sequence illustrates Minnelli’s command of movement within screen space. The swirling camera and mounting, vertiginous hysteria keep pace with Emma’s spiraling ambition (played by Jennifer Jones at the beginning of her most lush period).


Minnelli’s audacious gambit to cast James Mason as Flaubert, delivering the famous “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” line, perfectly suits a Hollywood professional who was more than a mere adaptor but whose private feeling suffused his imagery; he was among its most sincere creators of astonishments.



As usual, difficult to excerpt, but Essential Reading – Robin Wood in Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment:

If Minnelli was among the most neglected and misrecognized of the major Hollywood directors, Madame Bovary is perhaps the most neglected and misrecognized of his major works. the most important difference between novel and film lies in the author’s (and reader’s) relationship to the central figure. Flaubert’s celebrated detachment is replaced by Minnelli’s passionate commitment to and identification with his (and Jennifer Jones’s) Emma Bovary; the Flaubertian assumption of clinical objectivity gives way to an all-pervasive, precariously controlled hysteria.


It is the principle of hysteria that draws together here, in a magnificent unity, Minnelli, Hones, and the woman-centered melodrama. Susan Morrison wrote about “the hysterical test” and I want to argue that madame Bovary is one of Hollywood’s supreme expressions of that phenomenon. Minnelli understood hysteria, emotionally and intellectually, as a respones to feelings of powerlessness and entrapment, and he was able to dramatize it (without ever abandoning artistic/intellectual control) in many of his finest films.



More Essential Reading – Mark Rappaport maps Minnelli’s parties and mirrors, for Movie:

Minnelli’s Madame Bovary is not Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yoking the two of them together to make the MGM film has more than a hint of a shotgun marriage made in the front office than a natural affinity between two artists. But after a halting, unsure beginning, it definitely becomes Minnelli’s Madame Bovary. It is at the ball that Emma attends, where the Minnelli temperament can no longer be suppressed, that it becomes a Minnelli movie rather than a Flaubert adaptation.As always, Minnelli throws the best movie parties of anyone in Hollywood. Blake Edwards tries hard but none of them are as chich and elegant as Minnelli’s consistently are. Minnelli tried to capture, usually in wide angle llogn shots with a constantly probing, tracking and/or panning camera, the ambiance of the entire affair.


[…] The ultimate party, however – they keep getting better and better – is the one that the Marquis invites them to at Vaubyssard. It is the pivotal scene in the movie and, for Minnelli, the highpoint. It is Emma’s looks and her convent-school breeding that earn her and her provincial doctor husband the invitation, not the reputation or accomplishments of her dull spouse. She is wearing an astonishing dress, the grandmother of the dress that Minnelli’s Gigi wears. Like Gigi’s dress, it is all white and it is accompanied by several stray birds for ornamentation. Unlike Gigi’s dress, it flairs out at the skirt, with acres of tulle, more tulle than could possibly have existed in all of Rouen in the whole 19th century, although clearly not more than was available in Hollywood in 1949.


She catches a glimpse of herself in the ornately-framed gilded mirror. She is sitting on settee surrounded by the flounces of her tulle skirt, as if she is Venus rising from the foam. Around her are half a dozen admirers, as why shouldn’t there be? She is only the most beautiful woman there, in the most elaborate gown in the room. She is looking into the mirror, we are looking into the mirror seeing her looking into the mirror. Our eyes meet. She is no longer Emma Bovary, dreary wife of an even drearier, unambitious country doctor. She sees herself, at last, as the person she always wished herself to be and can’t reconcile that image to the person she once was. What she sees is that we have already known and what she has intuited – that she is Jennifer Jones, Hollywood star, star of the movie made by MGM, the quality studio, famous for its quality literary adaptation, and directed by its mot visually adventurous director, perhaps the greatest visual stylist in all of Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli. Everything she has ever dreamed and fantasized and hoped for is in that mirror.



Film Score Monthly discusses Miklos Rózsa’s score for the film:

From Vincente Minnelli, Rózsa received something he always sought but rarely found in Hollywood: preproduction input from a thoughtful collaborator. This mostly applied to the film’s dramatic centerpiece, the lavish ball at the country château of Vaubyessard, where Emma enjoys a fleeting vision of luxurious romance. Minnelli wanted a “neurotic waltz” for the climax of this sequence, and Rózsa responded with the famous symphonic episode whose intensity explodes far beyond the confines of what any period dance ensemble could have provided. The film (in a bit of dramatic telescoping) introduces Emma’s seducer, Rodolphe Boulanger, into this sequence, and the intoxicating waltz later becomes the leitmotiv for Emma’s doomed attraction to the cynical country squire. Rózsa must have liked this piece, for he used a scaled-down version as background music in several later M-G-M productions


John Williams conducts Rózsa’s Madame Bovary Waltz:


Margarita Landazuri with some background, for TCM:

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. 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.



Henry Sheehan interviews Minnelli:

Q. Another film I’d like to talk about is a very early one, Madame Bovary (1949). If some films can be regarded as a summing up, this one seems to be an anticipation. There’s really no liberation for Madame Bovary…
A. No! She fantasized everything! Her dreams were so much more realistic than reality. She dreamed so big and wanted everything to be beautiful. And everything was hideous, starting with the farm, the convent and all that. Disillusion about her husband.


Q. In your autobiography again, when you talk about Home From the Hill (1960), you talk about the operatic sense of the boar hunt. That operatic sense also seems present in the ballroom scene in Madame Bovary, almost a building hysteria.
A. Yes, that’s the one time that the dream came up to the reality. She saw herself as wanted and beautiful; the belle of the ball, so to speak. Then it ended bitterly. Illusion.


Q. Now the mirrors in the Madame Bovary ballroom scene; those must be very consciously placed to emphasize her narcissism.
A. Yes. She looks up and sees herself with men and officers asking her to dance. That is the dream she recognizes. I use mirrors all through that. The cracked mirror in the horrible establishment she rents in Rouen. The thing she looks into to put her make-up on in the last scene. In the convent. People don’t realize how many mirrors there are in that.


Q. What would you consider your most personal films, the ones that you were able to bring the most to, the ones you had to adapt yourself least to.
A. I always liked the Van Gogh story because I was terribly involved in that. We shot that in all the real places where Van Gogh worked. His letters are reflected in that, the five volumes of letters he wrote to Theo. He was eloquent and discursive on a subject in the affirmative and then he would turn right around and knock it down in the negative. And that character is like Emma Bovary. That’s the type of character I like the best.



Minnelli himself, in his memoir I Remember It Well:

Bovary had always been one of my favorite novels. It was consequently fascinating to research the many interpretations of her character. I developed an attitude about the character which I wanted convery. Emma Bovary, raised on the florid romanticism of such writers as Hugo and Chateaubriand, will remain a dreamy-eyed schoolgirl to her dying day. The walls of her room in the convent, covered with pictures of assignations on horseback and trysts in secret gardens, portraty that sentimental nature. She always searches for the beautiful, and only in her mind are they realized. At every turn, her life collides with tawdry reality. Her longing for romance and beauty leads to her sexual affairs[…] Judy [Garland] often made vague references to her fantasy life, saying that an actress’ talent depends on it, although she didn’t share it with me. This was the kind of fantasy-reality I wanted Ardrey to get across in Emma Bovary.

I told composer Rozsa what I wanted to create for the standout scene, and he wrote a neurotic waltz with an accelerating tempo that would work well with what we had in mind. All the acting of the scene was shot to his pre-recorded music. As Emma swirled around, the baroque mirror and chandeliers swung around her. The camera movement suggested her dizziness and breathlessness, and explained why the host ordered the break of the windows, an action we retained from the book. The sequence was among the most difficult I’ve ever directed.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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