Colin Davis
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Adultery and adulteration in film versions of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
in French literature on screen
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Even though Flaubert certainly lacked a reliable foreknowledge of the future, the suggestion of this chapter is that Madame Bovary contains a profound, pre-emptive reflection on the desire, adulteration and infidelity which constitute film adaptation. Madame Bovary, then, knows a great deal about fidelity and infidelity, betrayal, deception, disappointment, frustration, and the near-inevitability of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the reality of others. In this respect, the novel anticipates its own reception, including its adaptation into film. The question for filmmakers is: what would it mean to be faithful to this novel, when the work itself knows so much about infidelity, both as theme and aesthetic practice? This chapter refers to three films, all of which have the title Madame Bovary, all of which are distinguished works in their own ways, and all of which were made in different historical and cultural contexts: the version directed by Jean Renoir in 1934, in the first decade of sound cinema; Vincent Minnelli’s 1949 version, made in postwar Hollywood; and Claude Chabrol’s ‘heritage cinema’ version of 1991.

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