One of the major delights of the end-of-the-year film releases is the excellence of Claude Chabrol's screen version of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (Samuel Goldwyn). Treating this 19th century novel with tender loving care and just the right emphasis, French writer and director Chabrol has made it speak to our times.
Emma (Isabelle Huppert) is a farmer's daughter who marries Dr. Charles Bovary (Jean-Francois Balmer), a kind but deadly dull country doctor. Although he is devoted to her, he has no inkling of her passionate nature. Quickly frustrated with the tedium of their life, Emma sees everything she's missing when they attend a dance. Momentarily she is the belle of the ball in her beautiful dress, and then suddenly it is over.
Emma establishes a flirtatious friendship with Leon (Lucas Belvaux), a young notary clerk, but then he moves away. Guiltlessly, Emma begins an affair with Rudolphe Boulanger (Christophe Malavoy), the local squire who charms her with his urbanity.
To add more color in her life, Emma secretly spends money on new clothes and other treats that make her feel special. There's even a moment when Charles looks like he might win some acclaim in his profession. But then an operation on a club foot turns into a disaster and Charles is publicly humiliated.
On their promised evening of departure together, Rudolphe deserts her. After this setback, Emma takes charge of her next affair: it is with Leon, the young clerk.
In the end, Emma's pursuit of her romantic dreams and material desires leads to her downfall. When a creditor blackmails her and both of her lovers refuse to help, Emma commits suicide with arsenic.
Isabelle Huppert gives a stunning performance as Emma, a woman who feels entitled to the best things in life. Riding the rollercoaster of her high expectations, she is either in the heights or in the depths. Emma is willing to betray her husband, neglect her child, and drive her family into debt all to achieve the objects of her desire.
In a very primal sense, Emma Bovary is the emblem of the 80's with her unbridled pursuit of romance, adventure, and high style. And her husband Charles is the ideal of the 90's. He lives simply, acts decently, and loves his wife unswervingly. Madame Bovary is strikingly contemporary.