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Madame Bovary (1949)

The Literary Classics Collection

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's novel of a woman ruined by her desires, is the sort of story that has never grown moss even if it's usually done as a period piece. As recently as 2006's Little Children, the book was not only a reference point for its makers, but also a touchstone for Kate Winslet's character, who in her youth rejected Flaubert's cautionary tale only to understand it as a married woman. Even with divorce no longer a social taboo, getting stuck in loveless or routine marriages and looking for a spark elsewhere is still (for better or worse) a universal concept. But in Flaubert's time, it was a scandalous, leading to the author standing trial. That is director Vincent Minnelli's entry point into his adaptation, with James Mason playing the author and narrator, whose trial bookends the film. Jennifer Jones plays the titular character Emma, who marries the good doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) with the thoughts of staying loyal to him. But after they have a child, she finds herself bored and is drawn to playboy Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jordan), whom she dances with at a ball (the set piece for which the film is best remembered). In it, she spins and spins and nearly faints, and so the servants smash out the windows to let in air — it's a delirious and fittingly famous moment. Shortly thereafter she and Rodolphe have an affair, which begins to consume much of Emma's money. But Rodolphe leaves her, and so she moves on to an affair with another, but debts grow and eventually it ruins her. Minnelli was always concerned with people's fantasy lives, and Madame Bovary is a perfect opportunity to show how fantasies sometimes corrupt. On a design level, the film is lush, and the director was always an immaculate craftsman, a master of the invisible edit. But though the technical side is impressive, the story never makes the viewer complicit with Jones or Bovary. She wants passion, which is empathetic enough, but she also wants success for her husband. When he fails to stretch himself beyond his means, it damns him to her. That's not exactly a sympathetic thought-process, but the movie also emphasizes that no lover wants a partner who acts as an attentive puppy dog. As such, the final act's outrage for how people treat Bovary lacks any real punch. Perhaps the film's greatest success is the casting of Van Heflin. An actor who had a run of second- and third-billed roles during the 1950s, his best work was always as flawed and impotent men, mostly because he lacked any great on-screen charisma — few actors make being cuckolded as palatable. Warner presents Madame Bovary in a gorgeous full frame transfer (1.33:1 O.A.R) and in 1.0 mono. Extras include the film's theatrical trailer, the short film "Those Good Old Days," and Droopy cartoon "Outfoxed." Keep-case, or slimcase in Warner's "Literary Classics Collection."

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