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A Critical Look at Madame Bovary (1949) by Vincente Minnelli: the Waltz Scene with Jennifer Jones and Louis Jourdan.

By John P. Walsh

In the 1949 film Madame Bovary directed by Vincente Minnelli, a beautiful and charming Madame Bovary (Jennifer Jones) meets wealthy Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) at a ball where he literally sweeps her off her feet. Selfishly aggravated by her husband Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) for not fitting into high society, Madame Bovary begins a love affair with Rodolphe. Though the pair scheme to elope to Italy, Rodolphe does not love Madame Bovary. 

The Waltz Scene was Filmed to the Music 

One of the film’s most carefully wrought and delightful scenes is this ballroom sequence. It was one of the last segments to be shot. The film footage was tailored to Miklós Rózsa’s music. Minnelli explained to the composer in advance the camera movements so he could write the music in an arrangement for two pianos. The scene was then filmed to match it. Their artistic collaboration produced one of cinema’s most original scenes uniting robust music with weaving and gliding images on film.

Madame Bovary (Jennifer Jones) and Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) waltz at the ball. It is one of the film’s most delightful scenes and one of the last to be shot. Director Vincente Minnelli made certain its choreography carefully matched the music of Miklós Rózsa. Madame Bovary was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White.

“Break the Windows”

As Rodolphe swirls her, Emma Bovary’s head spins until she becomes dizzy. The viewer sees her disorientation as the camera takes her viewpoint. She keeps dancing but asks for fresh air. Her request leads to an extraordinary and incredible reaction by the stewards. They start to smash the ballroom’s windows with chairs to help her cool down. This fantastically destructive action of broken glass aligns with the destruction of Emma’s romantic illusions throughout the film. 

In reaction to Madame Bovary becoming dizzy while waltzing with a new lover, the stewards smash the ballroom windows to give her air. The extraordinary action ultimately becomes symbolic of the destruction of Madame Bovary’s romantic illusions with handsome and wealthy Rodolphe.

Night of Repressed Passion

Along with her husband’s boorish behavior at the ball and everywhere else, her romantic disappointment leaves Madame Bovary feeling publicly humiliated. Instead of love and excitement, she runs out of the ball in shame. Though she yearns for happiness and excitement, her pursuit of selfish pleasures ends in scandal and ruin.

Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary offers a performance that is elegant and beautiful and equally insightful to the selfish and nervous personality of Flaubert’s fictional character.

A film poster for Madame Bovary. There were several different versions produced for the marketing of the film.

This publicity photo for Madame Bovary showed the love triangle of Madame Bovary (Jennifer Jones), her handsome lover Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan), and her cuckolded and hapless husband Charles Bovary, as medical doctor (Van Heflin).

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Jones plays Gustave Flaubert’s doomed title character, Madame Bovary, from his 1856 serial novel in Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 film of the same name. The film offered two costume and wardrobe managers — Walter Plunkett for women and Valles for men. Walter Plunkett was a prolific costume designer who worked on over 150 projects in his Hollywood career, including Gone With The Wind. In 1951, Plunkett shared an Oscar with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff for An American in Paris. Valles specialized in men’s costumes at M-G-M. Valles received two Academy Award nominations including Spartacus in 1960.

Van Heflin is Charles Bovary, whom Madame Bovary (Jennifer Jones) had loved and hoped to build a respectable life, but in whom she grew disillusioned. Costumes were by Valles and Walter Plunkett both award-winning Hollywood costume designers.

A unique example of the costume design of Valles (Louis Jourdan) and Walter Plunkett (Jennifer Jones) for the 1949 film Madame Bovary. The next year, in 1950, both costume designers were nominated for an Academy Award for That Forsyte Saga.

Madame Bovary who danced wildly with Rodolphe at the ball loves him and in the story they plan to elope to Italy. But Rodolphe leaves for Italy without her which shatters Madame Bovary’s dreams and spirit.

Madame Bovary (Jennifer Jones) is indulged by an unscrupulous shop-keeper as she lives beyond her means in the pursuit of happiness and takes on heavy debt impossible to pay back. The film plot is told from the point of view of the author Gustave Flaubert (James Mason) who stands accused at his trial for corrupting morals by writing it.

From the waltz scene through to her death scene Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary offers a performance that is elegant and beautiful as well as provides insight into the contradictions offered by a selfish and nervous personality. In the end she finds her own death more attractive than living with shattered dreams. Charles, who never stopped loving her, begs her to wait for a doctor to arrive. Madame Bovary sighs, “Oh, Charles, why are you always trying to save me?”

A 1949 film poster for Madame Bovary that includes a head shot of James Mason as the novel’s author, Gustave Flaubert. The film is told in flashback through the character of Flaubert who is on trial on charges of immorality for writing the novel. This is based on historical fact. After Flaubert’s work was serialized in the Revue de Paris in 1856, the government brought an action against the publisher and author in 1858. Tried on a charge of immorality, both were acquitted in 1859. When Madame Bovary appeared in book form in France, it met with a warm reception.

Vincente Minnelli directs Jennifer Jones and Louis Jourdan in a scene from Madame Bovary. Reviews from critics were mixed and the film lost money at the box office. Whether it is the fault of the film-makers or the story itself is a debatable point.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.