Too much narration is death for a dramatic film. But how do you film the most precisely narrated novel ever written without it? Case in point: this recently released to DVD version of Madame Bovary (1949). It's directed by Vincente Minnelli, the ambitious (hell, vainglorious) MGM director who was certain he could do anything. By anything, I mean make a movie based on a novel that is (a: is, for the most part unconcerned about morality, and (b): almost entirely free of sympathetic characters.To protect the film from censors, Minnelli includes a framing device with James Mason playing Gustave Flaubert in a French courtroom recreating the author's successful defense of the book against a charge of obscenity. On paper, this seemed like perfect casting. It's difficult to read Lolita without hearing Humbert Humbert's words pronounced in Mason's drawling, ironical voice from the Kubrick film version.
And whatever Nabokov thought about Flaubert, the two books have similar approaches to the problem of depicting an outrage against public morality, and serio-comic protagonists doomed by their idealization of perfect love.
At times, Mason is satisfyingly right in his voice over description of the novels that rotted Emma Bovary's mind. He describes books with heroes "as brave as lions, gentle as lambs...the cavalier, the serenader, the long ago and the far away." But in the courtroom scenes, Mason is more the noble, suffering author, a mirror for the filmmaker toiling under censorship. Here, Mason is teary-eyed, where Flaubert was always nothing but clear-eyed. In The Films of James Mason, Mason claims to have detested Madame Bovary when he saw it, and adds that his Flaubert was "lazily and unimaginatively played." I'd say that the film was already compromised by the censors, and fatally overproduced. But that doesn't mean it's bad; in fact there's much here that's savory and exciting.