The Sins of Madame Bovary
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I was astonished at how well Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s 1969 pseudo-erotic potboiler “The Sins of Madame Bovary” mirrored Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterpiece. The stories are startlingly identical, and, while details have been changed (most notably, the lack of a suicide at the end) there is a heavy fog of despair over both. And while fealty to the source material is often praised by audiences, especially when it is fealty to a piece of literature so well known as Madame Bovary, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with this film adaptation. It is, after all, about as lurid, melodramatic, well-shot, and well-acted as any cheapie Italian Euro-schlock eroto-thriller it purports to be; I would have expected (and appreciated) a good deal more misplaced and inappropriate sex scenes featuring Edwige Fenech’s ample, gravity-defying breasts.
You see, there is a long tradition in softcore smut of hiding your smutty intentions my masking them (usually just barely) below the surface of famed literature. Going back as far as 1967, there have been film versions of The Marquis de Sade’s Justine. There are at least four film versions of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O. There have been countless film versions of the 1959 smut novel Emmanuelle, and don’t get me started on Lady Chatterly. And while some of these adaptations are earnest attempts to tell grown-up stories of adult sexuality, the vast bulk of them are flimsy excuses to hang prurient, bare-faced sex on a façade of class.
With a lurid title like “The Sins of Madame Bovary,” I immediately assumed (as would anyone) that this film (new on video from One 7 Media) would fall into the smuttier category. And, as the chintzy photography, flimsy outfits, bad dialogue and bad acting immediately attested, I was prepared for something that would gleefully violate the memory of Gustave Flaubert, and dive straight for the bodice-ripping pleasure the raincoat brigade so eagerly seeks. But, I am disappointed to report, it’s actually trying to tell a legitimate story, and the film’s first bare breasts don’t appear until 25 minutes in. And even then, they are in a non-sexual context; Emma Bovary (Fenech) is merely changing out of her nighty. It’s not until about an hour of the film’s 90 minutes has elapsed before there is even a sex scene, but it’s a scene of Fenech doing the mildly nasty with an actor named Franco Ressel, who looks like a wiry, demonic redhead version of Burt Lancaster. In terms of raw eroticism, it’s like watching your ugly uncle getting it on.
From then on, the film is good about keeping Fenech dressed in as little as possible. She traipses about her mansion, dressed in translucent frocks, sure to keep her boobs illuminated. She flirts with her various lovers, and whips off her clothes at a moment’s notice. For a short while, “The Sins of Madame Bovary” lives up to its trashy promises.
But the rest of the film was strangely and unsatisfyingly faithful to the book. Emma Bovary is already living with her milquetoast husband Charles (Gerhard Riedmann) at the film’s outset, and she’s already feeling the pang of her dull married life. Her dissatisfaction is only inflamed by her romance novels, and lack of real-life experience (she was educated in a convent). In the book, we really feel Emma’s suffocating boredom paired with her tragic naïveté. In this film, she comes across as a whiny brat, and her husband, previously so clueless, is actually kind of a decent and soft-spoken fellow; he’s just, it seems, lousy in bed. She meets Adolphe (Ressel) at a ball, and they have a promising flirtation. Many weeks of teasing and prodding result in a desperate, clumsy sex scene in a barn, while a tempest rages outside. Ordinarily, this stretching out of the first sex scene would give the filmmaker’s an excuse to ratchet up the sexual tension, but there’s nothing to really impy that there’s anything tense between these two. The only thing sexual about any of these scenes is how overwhelmingly sexy Edwige Fenech is.
Edwige Fenech got her career started in the late 1960s with a series of softcore Italian smut flicks with odd titles like “Strip Nude for your Killer” and “Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.” She looked like a more alluring version of the zaftig goddesses of Fellini’s imagination. Her face was girlish and her figure was copious. Her breasts seem to operate by their own laws of physics. Her presence in an Italian softcore film would assure funding. She is, in certain circles, a legitimate screamqueen, and siren of the sex film biz. She is still working to this day in films like “Hostel: Part II.” She is also an actress of limited range, more notable for her energy and her gameness than her subtlety. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Tura Satana herself was, after all, a pretty lame actress.
The film then grinds quickly past Emma Bovary’s second lover Léon (Gianni Dei, who, thanks to a glitch in the DVD’s subtitle track, was always called “L©√on”), and the dissatisfaction she feels in sleeping with him. There’s also a subplot involving the reptilian machinations of the practically invertebrate Rudolph (Peter Carsten), a manipulative moneylender who attempts to blackmail Emma into bed.
The film ends with thoughts of suicide, but does not actually depict Emma’s suicide, leaving off yet another opportunity to blow the film over the top.
Is it weird that I was upset over its stringent literary fidelity? Am I sounding too pervy when I ask for more sex out of something so reportedly trashy? I don’t think so. I think, in this case, the film demanded it, and failed to deliver. If you’re interested in literary smut, there are much better places to start, and if you want to see Fenech disrobe, there are better ways to do it.