On a surface level there’s not particular wrong with Madame Bovary, but there’s a persistent feeling that something is missing from it. Or that it’s several small somethings that are missing or slightly off which distorts the final product into something that’s decent enough. But decent enough isn’t good enough for a film with this pedigree.
Chief among the problems is a wraparound segment that finds author Gustave Flaubert (James Mason, bringing gravitas to a cameo) on trial for obscenity. It looks and feels like a mandated exercise to the production code, and Madame Bovary’s problems begin to compound from there. It’s nearly impossible to tell the story of Bovary with one hand tied behind your back, which is what it looks like here as glossy MGM standards must be met and the thematic material can only go so far.
It’s gorgeous to look at, as any film from Vincente Minnelli is at least worth a watch for the beautiful images alone, but beautiful images are not the same as emotions. This is Madame Bovary at its most muted, and the main character becomes one we quickly stop caring about and there’s still nearly 90 more minutes to spend with her before the end. It is here where the decision to present the film as a presentation of Flaubert’s oration becomes such a crisis. Emma Bovary’s actions are hard to care about or invest in when they feel removed from a believable world for us to get lost in.
There’s also the curious case of Jennifer Jones’ central performance. Jones was an actress of tremendous raw potential that some directors could harness and finesse into gloriously pyrotechnic work (Gone to Earth), or touchingly vulnerable and emotionally open (Portrait of Jennie), or a shockingly gifted comedienne (Cluny Brown), or deliciously, dangerous kitsch and carnal (Duel in the Sun). There’s numerous gaps in the script and Jones never fills them in with personality or strong choices. She merely plays the scenes as they are with no true artistry that great actors bring to their parts.
Minnelli only gets two great scenes from Jones and the rest is merely treading water. One of them is the justifiably famous ballroom waltz scene. It is a tour-de-force from every angle, but Jones’ transition from head-spinning romanticism to cold and calculating as she glimpses herself in the mirror is a knockout. It’s a shame that right after this Jones goes back to merely being serviceable in the role until a late scene where she tries to relive that glorious night by dancing alone in her hotel room. She’s delirious and lost in a dream before catching a glimpse of herself in a cracked mirror and the illusion is shattered. These two moments alone are worth investing in the time and energy to get through the rest.
No scene probably better summarizes Jones’ on-screen performances and off-screen drama than a drunk Van Heflin ruining her triumphant moment at the waltz. Replace the upper society of France with Hollywood’s mover and shakers, Heflin with David O. Selznick, and try to tell me that whole moment doesn’t work as an unintended bit of self-reflection. The man means well, but he still manages to ruin the triumph of Jones. This bit of autobiography from the star only enriches an already exceptional sequence.
It’s not that Minnelli was incapable of directing a great melodrama, look no further than his passionate work in Lust for Life, Some Came Running, and The Bad and the Beautiful, but he seems like he’s treading water here. Some sequences are alive, many are counting time until the next big sequence, and the entire thing feels curiously hollow. It’s worth watching for the waltz scene, for supporting work from Louis Jourdan, Gladys Cooper, Mason, and a few scenes of Van Heflin, and for the gorgeous production design and costumes, but it could have been so much more.