Huppert's passion shines through convincing yet cold 'Madame Bovary'

December 25, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The three bad girls of great literature are Medea (who murdered her kids to punish the husband who'd abandoned her for a trophy woman), Lady Macbeth (the original yuppie wife) and Flaubert's Emma Bovary who ruined her family and her life in search of an orgasm.

But now it's the forgiving '90s and at last we can say: If she found it, maybe it was worth it.

Claude Chabrol's re-creation of the great Flaubert novel has arrived at the Charles and it's everything a French movie of a French novel should be: studied, respectful, and somewhat abstracted. In fact, Flaubert once said of great works of art that they should be "of severe aspect and incomprehensible," and that is in some sense true of the film.

There's nothing showy or strident in it, after the quiet fashion of the French cinema. Chabrol's workmanship is extremely economical; he sets up a scene, delivers it and moves on, trusting the material to carry itself rather than insisting on drawing the underlines himself.

It occurs to me that this "typically French" style may itself be derived from Flaubert's own, which aspired to "le mot juste," the right word, by which he meant a perfect moral and artistic neutrality so that the essence of things, on their own, could shine through.

The bleak story, which even got the reclusive Flaubert booked on a morals charge, remains untampered with. Emma Rouault (Isabelle Huppert), the pretty daughter of a prosperous farmer, marries the dowdy widower Dr. Charles Bovary (Jean-Francois Balmer) and moves into his little house. Fireworks do not explode, trains don't hurtle into tunnels, and the surf doesn't crash upon the shore.

The years pass and the doctor prospers, especially after he moves to another village and sets up practice in connection with a powerful drug store owner (in France in the 1850s, druggists were apparently higher up the social tree than physicians).

But soon Emma meets the rogue Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy), a debauched aristocrat. Enter, stage left: fireworks, trains and the surf. She's ready to leave Charles but Rodolphe jilts her at the moment of departure. Crushed, she begins an empty life as a petite bourgeoise clothes-horse, and if I hadn't already described Lady Macbeth as the first yuppie wife, then I could use that line on Madame Bovary. I guess she's the second yuppie wife.

Her undoing is skillfully engineered by the scheming couturier Lheureux, who manipulates her deeper and deeper into debt, then takes her apart. She commits suicide, Charles dies and their 5-year-old daughter Berthe is disposed of in what may be the coldest sentence in all literature: "She [the great aunt who takes Berthe in] is poor and sends [Berthe] to work for her living in a cotton mill."

Chabrol's production is sumptuous and convincing, and the performances, especially Huppert's blend of icy self-regard and endless passion, are all exquisite. The movie is formally perfect; it's just colder than an icicle.

'Madame Bovary'

Starring Isabelle Huppert.

Directed by Claude Chabrol.

Released by Goldwyn.

Rated PG-13.

***

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