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Huppert Incandescent in Chabrol's Faithful 'Bovary'

December 25, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

S candalous and pitiable may be appropriate words for the career of Gustave Flaubert's wretched Emma Bovary: French literature's most famous adulteress. Yet, in Flaubert's great novel, the scandal was tempered, the pity made luminous. And, in the best of Claude Chabrol's new film of "Madame Bovary" (selected theaters), something similar happens.

There's little conscious lyricism in Chabrol's approach. A more pragmatic and prolific artist, he doesn't painstakingly seek the right image as Flaubert--who could take a day to write a paragraph--sought the right word. But Chabrol has certain qualities that make him right for this "Bovary": He shares Flaubert's interest in provincial hypocrisy, secret guilt and sexual repression. He's as devoted to Flaubert--and also to cinema--as Flaubert was to art and literature.

He also has a great Emma Bovary: Isabelle Huppert. Playing the fictional doctor's wife whose romantic revolt against ennui sent her spiraling down to doom, Huppert has a tense sensitivity that irradiates the film. As in Chabrol's "Violette" and "Story of Women," she's playing victim and outlaw--but also heroine. Emma's improvident love affairs, her wild spending sprees, her neglect of husband and child, the "wickedness and greed" the narrator recalls as she lies dying: all this is washed away in the fury and impact of the actress' presence.

"Madame Bovary, c'est moi," was Flaubert's famous protestation; in some ways, it might be Huppert's as well. She doesn't condescend to Emma a bit. She plays her from deep inside, with total sympathy. And there's a jarring quality of danger in her performance: a line of electricity leaping from her poignantly childlike glances, her aching alertness.

When Huppert's Emma senses herself, surrounded by suitors in the celebrated ballroom scene, her delight surpasses vanity. When she sees the last cowardly failure of her life's great love, her despair overwhelms scorn. When, ashen-faced, she kisses the cross on her deathbed, it's exactly as Flaubert described: with a lover's voluptuous abandon.

This Emma Bovary is truly trapped: not just by marriage in a dull provincial town or the selfishness of her lovers but by the entire social structure around her. She's trapped by class as well as sex, sensibility as well as circumstance. She and her poor, ineffectual husband, Charles (Jean-Francois Balmer), a sluggish but loving lump of a doctor, are peasants toyed with by the jaded aristocrats, the conniving bourgeois. Money and romance are promiscuously intertwined in Emma's fantasies--and in her destruction.

Chabrol brings all that out; he also makes this a post-feminist "Bovary." Flaubert wrote Emma from above--his own father-physican's family in Rouen was the kind Emma would have longed to join--but Chabrol and Huppert re-imagine her from eye-level. And Chabrol, as you might expect, heaps scorn on Emma's seducers and tormentors: the playboy Rodolphe (Christopher Malavoy) or the nasty tradesman Lhereux who ruins her--or even burly Jean Yanne ("Weekend") as the devious "progressive" pharmacist, Homais.

Unlike Vincente Minnelli or Jean Renoir--who've adapted the most notable film Bovarys of the past--Chabrol doesn't have to cut or circumscribe his dark vision. (Renoir's underrated 1934 version was edited down from four hours to two; in 1949, Minnelli and writer Robert Ardrey, in the Hays Code era, had to stage the whole movie as part of Flaubert's censorship hearing.)

Instead, Chabrol's "Madame Bovary" is unusually, almost obsessively, faithful to the novel's text; the backgrounds and settings have been meticulously reconstructed, the dialogue or narration comes straight from the book.

Chabrol has hampered himself with an uninspired score by his composer son Matthieu and the movie takes a good half hour or so to settle us into its rhythm. But the care and intelligence of the telling, the slow accretion of detail, keep building and building. By the time the film reaches Emma's death scene, its grip on our emotions is chilling and absolute.

Some may argue that Chabrol's vision of "Madame Bovary" (Times-rated Mature for adult but inoffensive themes) doesn't duplicate Flaubert's. How could it? But Chabrol's movie doesn't have to match one of the five or six greatest novels of the 19th Century to justify our strong admiration. All it needs is the power of its irony, its denunciation of hypocrisy, its surgically precise detail--and the strange, pale incandescence of Isabelle Huppert.

'Madame Bovary ' Isabelle Huppert: Emma Bovary Jean-Francois Balmer: Charles Bovary Christopher Malavoy: Rodolphe Boulanger Jean Yanne: M. Homais

A Samuel Goldwyn Co. presentation of an MK Films production. Director/screenplay Claude Chabrol. Producer Marin Karmitz. Cinematographer Jean Rabier. Editor Monique Fardoulis. Costumes Corinne Jorry. Music Matthieu Chabrol. Set designer Michele Abbe. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (adult but inoffensively handled themes).

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