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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Monday, May 07, 2012

Minnelli Bovary

I'm fascinated by this essay.  Robin Wood was a brilliant and idiosyncratic film critic whom I respect, so to read his heartfelt defense of Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary is an intriguing experience, since I consider the film to be a stinker.  My wife and I watched the film shortly after finishing the novel (in Merloyd Lawrence's translation).  I don't expect film adaptations to be "faithful" to the source in a pious way, but to play with it the way Charlie Parker played with Embraceable You, to wit:


So I'm a bit put off by Wood's insinuation that those of us who dismiss the film for straying from the book are demanding overmuch fidelity to source material at the expense of the film's own integrity.  I don't ask for much from adaptations, but at least read the darn book before adapting it.

Wood and I agree, though: it's fruitless to evaluate the film in relation to the novel.  I doubt that anyone who worked on the film even read the novel, except an uncredited script department drone who wrote the plot synopsis which I suspect was the true source material for the film.  After all, if you're trying to capture the complexity of Emma Bovary, you don't cast a hambone like Jennifer Jones in the role.  And poor James Mason, in the thankless role of Flaubert, gets stuck mouthing narration that hews far more closely to Ye Olde Tinseltown Hack's Guide to Purple Prose than, well, Merloyd Lawrence, through whose translating lens I've viewed Flaubert.

I don't mind that, as Robin Wood explains, Minnelli made a film that was not a Flaubert adaptation, but while he was making a film that wasn't a Flaubert adaptation, couldn't he have refrained from titling it Madame Bovary, as if it were a Flaubert adaptation?  I call it a bait and switch.  I call it rude.

It's odd that Wood doesn't talk about the casting of Van Heflin as Charles Bovary.  In the book poor Charles is a nebbish who puts his wife on a pedestal but never understands her longings or perceives her infidelity.  Heflin, whom I liked as a tough-but-sensitive hero in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (where he convincingly out-butched Kirk Douglas), isn't obvious casting for the role of a clueless nebbish, and the way Minnelli mans Charles up to suit Heflin while still sticking to the plot summary memo he'd received from the script department is rather remarkable.  Heflin plays the role like "Chuck Bovary, Gumshoe Cowboy," and a guy like that doesn't miss his wife's philandering.  No, what he does is forgive it.  Confronted with written evidence of Emma's straying, he burns the proof in front of her, letting her know that he won't hold it against her.  It's almost as if he gives her tacit permission to be monogamish instead of monogamous if that's what it takes to keep her.  As daring as the novel was, the film actually one-ups it with this striking portrayal of a man letting his wife cheat if that's what it takes to keep the marriage afloat.  It's the kind of thing that probably goes on more than anyone wants to acknowledge, so kudos to Minnelli for tellin' it like it is.

One more thing: a lot of the action in the novel and film takes place in the city of Rouen.  How do you pronounce Rouen?  I don't know, and neither does anyone in the film.

"So how do you like Rown?'

"Oh, it's marvelous!  Row-wahn is the loveliest place I've ever seen!"

"Yes, she's had quite a time here in Roo-en."

Pure community theatre.

But check out the Ball scene, which Wood singles out for praise.  Revisiting it on Youtube almost convinces me to give the film another try.


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