Destroyed by dreams and addicted to sensation, Emma Bovary is a heroine far more complex than a bored housewife who likes a pretty frock in Claude Chabrol’s triumphant adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel.
From the beginning Chabrol’s feathery wit and Isabelle’s warm shadows present Emma as a woman in whom marital promises have commenced a slow death. Emma calls it ‘a fog.’ Charles (Jean-François Balmer), her husband is pitifully dull, yet adoring. His conversation, the voiceover (dry, measured) tells us, ‘is as flat a pavement.’
As Emma’s domesticity with Charles grows more intimate, the more distant she becomes. Huppert constantly casts Emma’s mischievous gaze elsewhere, beyond the boundaries of her small society. She could be anywhere: in a field beyond the garden wall, in the arms of lover, or wearing beautiful dress, dancing at a grand ball.
Emma is certainly calculating, selfish and materialistic; yet Huppert gives her more, making her curiously carefree, coquettish yet melancholy. Barely beyond the title sequence we see Emma in front of a male visitor, sticking her tongue in a crystal liqueur glass, cleaning it of its last drops of fortified wine.
A short while later, Huppert pendulums Emma’s mood towards a petulant sulk. It’s almost comic (helped by Jean-Michel Bernard and Matthieu Chabrol’s breezy score). However, we know there’s a sad stone in Emma that will never move. And so she swings between these two states, without control.
Chabrol writes Emma’s desperate state of mind as something more related to who she is, instead of the restrictive epoch into which she was born. Her mindset is her ‘code’ and there is nothing she can do about it.
We know little of Bovary’s childhood. This is a characteristic of Chabrol’s films. His characters, whether adapted from novels, or new creations, exisit always ‘in the moment.’ Chabrol’s characters react to circumstance, to what they see and what is happening around them. These moments build up, becoming more intense, and then they break into a ‘final confession.’
In Madame Bovary, Emma’s confession is narrated, confirming her inside cog has turned her towards a place where she no longer exists. A place where Emma has chosen the ultimate sensation, from which there is no return.
Director: Claude Chabrol (1991)