15 February 2004 | jandesimpson
The best of three
Films of great novels are usually light years away in terms of quality from their originals. There are of course a few exceptions, the David Lean Dickens adaptations for instance and recently a Neil Jordan version of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" that I much admired. Generally it is second rate literature, "Gone WIth the Wind" a prime example, that fares so much better. Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" has continued through the history and development of cinema and TV to exert its fascination on would-be translators, although it has to be admitted that it has generally proved elusive. One would have thought that it would have fared particularly well in the hands of outstanding French directors such as Renoir and Chabrol but their efforts to come to grips with Flaubert's masterpiece have ultimately to be judged as among their lesser works. There is quite a lot going for Jean Renoir's early 1933 version, not least the authentic Normandy exteriors shot with great affection, but technically the film shows its age. It is rather like a series of tableaux, some in themselves quite well done, but ultimately lacking a strong narrative thrust and sense of cohesion. Nevertheless I remember being more impressed with it than with Claude Chabrol's 1991 version which I found surprisingly cold and passionless. I admit I have only seen this once and my memory of it is far from clear, perhaps because it grabbed me so little at the time. It may seem rather preposterous to award the accolade for the best "Bovary" to Vincente Minnelli's Americanised 1949 MGM version with its studio mock-up of a French village that seems more of a Flanders lookalike and some location work clearly done in Californian woodland, but, in the absence of so little competition, I would have to plump for it as being certainly the most enjoyable. After all it has that quite exquisite beauty, Jennifer Jones, as the eponymous heroine, suffering and eventually dying as tenderly as only she can. My favourite memory from the film is her first appearance on the farm where Doctor Bovary is calling to tend to her sick father. There she is in a setting of all too believable rural squalor decked out in the most unbelievably opulent dress imaginable. If nothing else it makes Bovary's initial besottedness with her absolutely credible. Minnelli's is a rather sanitised adaptation. Okay to have the heroine die beautifully once the initial agony of taking poison has been established, but the inevitable outcome of a botched operation on a villager's clubfoot - amputation - is, unlike in the novel and other versions, evaded by the doctor's refusal to take on the medical challenge. It makes for rather more comfortable box-office. There are some beautifully done scenes including the almost obligatory inclusion in a Hollywood period piece of a ballroom sequence. The one here has the hedonistic movement that is everything we had come to expect from "The Great Waltz" onwards. There is also the heroine's wait, her bags fully packed in a windswept street after dark for the lover that never comes. Wyler did it rather better in "The Heiress" but Minnelli's has plenty of atmosphere. His version may be even further than its competitors from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" but he invests it with enough passion and commitment to ensure it a small place in Hollywood history.