Emma (Jennifer Jones) loves excitement. She has married a small-town physician, Dr. Bovary (Van Heflin) to leave the confines of her provincial childhood home. Madame Bovary grows dissatisfied with her new life and wants to live in a bigger city and with a more exciting man. As her disdain for her husband grows so does her passion for any man who is wealthy enough to take her away from town.
She runs through a series of secret suitors (including Louis Jourdan as Rudolphe a dashing man of means who finds marriage destructive to his bachelor life) and creditors to fund her trysts. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband awaits her with a tender heart, like a Biblical Hosea.
James Mason makes a brief appearance as the book's author Flaubert who is on trial for writing a character from his "depraved mind." His explanation of the story bookends the film. Flaubert narrates the story here and there through voice over. At the conclusion, Flaubert accuses the court of trying to squelch truth.
There is no reason to present the book's author, the film would have done nicely without the court scene. You get the idea that the filmmakers may have been speaking directly to the code office, which censored all of its scripts. So Flaubert is foisted high with reverence as the ultimate hero in this movie.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wonders if there is a need for a defense of Madame Bovary since many "ladies much like her have been seen on the screen for many years." Perhaps there is no need to defend her to the audience, but there may have been the necessity to defend her to the code office. Filmmakers often felt on trial when having to submit their ideas for censorship.
Vincente Minelli's artful direction creates a sumptuous feast for the eye. Particularly impressive is the waltz scene, where the audience feels as if it is dancing with Emma and Rudolphe, and thereby swept off your feet with the heroine.
"... Vincente Minelli has kept it [the film] moving with a smooth and refined directorial touch. The high point of his achievement,indeed, is a ballroom scene which spins in a whirl of rapture and crashes in a shatter of shame. In this one sequence, the director has fully visualized his theme."
Crowther is less than enthusiastic about Jennifer Jones' performance, calling it "a little bit light" for the anguish. However, yours truly found her performance appropriately wrought and dramatic.
According to Paul Green, author of Jennifer Jones:The Life and Films, Lana Turner was first choice for this MGM film. The author surmises that the salacious content plus Turner's voluptuous reputation wouldn't make it past the censors.
Others in the MGM stable were considered, including Greer Garson (too conservative) and Elizabeth Taylor (too young). MGM asked Selznick Studios to loan Jennifer Jones, who was demure enough to get past the code, but mature enough to play the role. They agreed to the deal if MGM would also find parts for other Selznick contract players, including Jourdan, Mason and Christopher Kent.
Madame Bovary is a great costume drama with sensitive performances. Recommended.
Have you seen the film? What did you think of it?