Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary (1949)

“Is it a crime to want things to be beautiful?”

Gustave Flaubert (James Mason) defends his novel Madame Bovary, about a farm girl named Emma (Jennifer Jones) who marries a local doctor (Van Heflin), but is quickly disappointed that her status hasn’t risen sufficiently. Jones racks up debts with a local lender (Frank Allenby) while flirting with a clerk (Alf Kjellin) and eventually having an affair with a shiftless playboy (Louis Jourdan). How will kind Dr. Bovary respond when he learns about the depths of his wife’s deceit?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Doctors and Nurses
  • Historical Drama
  • Infidelity
  • James Mason Films
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • Louis Jourdan Films
  • Morality Police
  • Social Climbers
  • Van Heflin Films
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Vincente Minnelli directed this lavish MGM adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s “obscene” novel about infidelity, social aspirations, and personal ruin. It’s undeniably challenging to sympathize with Jones’s Emma Bovary — especially given how selfless and kind her husband (Heflin) comes across — which makes it especially hard to watch her continued self-destruction. Her pursuit of attention and “fine things” leads to not only her own downfall, but the ruin of her marriage and an inability to effectively parent her young daughter. The cinematography, sets, and costumes are all top-notch (particularly during the acclaimed “waltz sequence”, which shows Emma at the height of her self-perceived desirability) but viewers may find themselves simply dreading the inevitable outcome. The narrative book-ending of Flaubert defending his novel in court is a unique way to share the historical infamy of this work, but doesn’t do much to actually shift our impressions one way or another.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Plancke’s cinematography

  • The expertly crafted waltz sequence

  • Fine sets and costumes

  • Miklos Rozsa’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.


One thought on “Madame Bovary (1949)

  1. Not must-see. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “You asked for something that consumes while it burns!”

    ‘Madame Bovary’ (1949): Years ago in Tokyo, I tended to take my side-job as a film reviewer seriously – so, when I was about to review Claude Chabrol’s 1991 version of the Flaubert novel, I read it beforehand. I don’t recall being moved much by it – nevertheless I was wrapped up in the film; mainly due to Isabelle Huppert’s performance as Emma (she won Best Actress at the Moscow International Film Festival). I was younger then. …The script for Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 version begins in an unusual manner. It doesn’t jump into the story right away but, instead, it begins in a courtroom, with James Mason (as the author) defending his book against obscenity charges. To plead his case, he tells us the story of Emma (Jennifer Jones) from his POV. He makes the claim that society is, in part, to blame for the way it shaped her character. (“We had taught her – what?: to believe in Cinderella.” That’s a claim that many, even now, bring against a number of Disney films.) Yet… watching this film, I kept thinking, ‘Yes, but where does personal responsibility come in?’ Or is it simply that certain willful people – even though they can sense mature people all around them – choose to not grow up?; to embrace arrested development? …Flaubert was acquitted in court and his novel is a well-regarded classic, due to the way he captured Emma’s reality. Minnelli’s unfussy, straightforward film accomplishes the same thing. But.. I kept feeling so bad for her husband (nicely played by Van Heflin). Isn’t Emma just a narcissistic brat? 😉

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