Thursday, August 24, 2006

Jim Shepard, editor
Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies.
New York: Perennial, 2000. (277 p.)
ISBN: 0-06-095491-4

In 1992, Julian Barnes travelled to Gennes, France to interview the film director Claude Chabrol. Madame Bovary had been released with Isabelle Huppert playing the role of Emma, and Barnes was writing a piece that would be published in the Observer Magazine. The Chabrol profile is interesting for its insights into the director's nearly obsessive faithfulness to Flaubert's novel, including the fact that Chabrol "established an inventory of all the noises mentioned by Flaubert -- the bird calls, buzzing wasps, animal bleats and baas -- to use as a basis for the soundtrack." Such fidelity to the text seems ironic given the novel's subject matter, but it also serves to raise questions about the nature of storytelling and the translation of the written word into images on celluloid. Barnes briefly comments on what he calls "the question of Book into Film" by asking, "What do we want of it, what is it for, and whom is it for? . . . And for those who know the book, is the film a parallel experience, an extension, or an alternative?" Chabrol offers his view, saying, "I had always believed that cinema and literature were going in the same direction, were companions."

Eight years after the Chabrol interview, Julian Barnes offers an extended study of the film Madame Bovary in Jim Shepard's Writers at the Movies. The essay begins with a few familiar paragraphs pulled from the 1992 article. Some words and phrases are changed (the split infinitive "to merely punt" becomes "merely to punt" and a "stream" is reduced to a "flow"), but they are only surface alterations, cosmetic touches. Then, three paragraphs in, just when you begin to think Barnes has simply rehashed an old piece, the essay explodes with a block quote from Chabrol that begins, "I started reading Madame Bovary the day before I lost my virginity." We learned this from the Observer article, as well, but in Barnes's words, not as a direct quote. Somehow reading the whole of Chabrol's statement enriches the story. It also serves as the point of departure from the original article, as Barnes expands his interpretation of the film and incorporates information about other attempts to adapt Flaubert's masterpiece to the movies.

Barnes is, of course, a tremendous admirer of Flaubert. The extent of his Flaubertian passion is best expressed in his novel Flaubert's Parrot in 1984. Since that time, his devotion to the French author has led him to publish on many other aspects of Flaubertian studies, including the tracking of the painting that inspired The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a wonderfully insightful study of the character Justin in Madame Bovary, and numerous reviews of books that deal with the author. All of this attention to Flaubert may suggest obsession, though Barnes would likely dismiss this characterization. Barnes does have incredible depth of knowledge about Flaubert, though. Who else could write:

    "When I saw the film, I thought I picked up two moments of Charbrolian invention, even if neither was much of a betrayal. Isabelle Huppert shows us her tongue on only two occasions--the first time, very early on, when she licks out the bottom of a wineglass as a coarse come-on to Charles, and the second, right at the end, when the tongue is burgundy with blood as she is dying. This subtle linking of eroticism and death was, as it turned out, in the novel all along (though more strongly accentuated by being made visual). The other was a tiny moment as Charles and Emma are leaving their wedding feast: Charles, bumbling along beside his bride, manages to drop his hat and then awkwardly pick it up. Apart from being in character, this also seemed to point usefully forward to the probably maladroitness of the wedding night. Pressed, Chabrol admits to not exactly an invention but rather a trouvaille (find). 'We did the scene three or four times. In only one of them Charles dropped his hat. It was the best take. But let's call it a trouvaille that comes from Flaubert.'"

Whether this sort of statement can be construed as obsession or mere observation is open for debate. What is certain, however, is that Barnes has an innate ability to use Flaubert as a springboard for explorations into what at first seem to be only loosely-related topics, whether art, author worship, or cinema.

-- Ryan Roberts, February 2001


Works mentioned in this review:

Barnes, Julian. "Films, Flaubert and Fidelity." The Observer Magazine (London), (18 October 1992): 34-35, 37-38.

Barnes, Julian. "Letter From Genoa." Times Literary Supplement , no. 5043 (26 November 1999): 19.

Barnes, Julian. "Justin A Small Major Character." In The Process of Art Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, Music, and Painting in Honour of Alan Raitt. Edited by Freeman, Michael, Elizabeth Fallaize, Jill Forbes, Toby Garfitt, et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. p. 1-10.

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