SCANDAL! Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those pillars of French culture whose dismissal might well get you deported. (Deservedly.) It has inspired innumerable adaptations and co-optations, including a Hindi musical, a VeggieTales episode, and a postmodernist novel posing as a nonfiction memoir-literary homage (Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot). Its film incarnations have been reset everywhere from Portugal to Argentina to Rye, N.Y., attracting directors as celebrated as Jean Renoir and Vincente Minnelli and actresses as disparate as emotional heavy-lifter Pola Negri and chilly, twiggy Isabelle Huppert.
A few notches below that lofty company is 1969’s The Sins of Madame Bovary, a German-Italian coproduction with the era’s requisite mixture of dubbed multinationals — none very well remembered now — which is being issued this month by South San Francisco’s CAV Distributing. Despite its lurid title, this is a fairly faithful, if uninspired, version of the novel directed by journeyman Hans Schott-Schöbinger, whose less-than-illustrious prior credits included something called The Pastor with the Jazz Trumpet (1962).
It was a last career stop for him, but just the beginning for star Edwige Fenech, an Algerian-born beauty contest winner of Maltese and French extraction who would be the face that launched a thousand European exploitation movies — well, a lot of them anyway — over the next decade-plus. (Never entirely retired, she recently had a cameo in 2007’s Hostel: Part II.) Through all her giallos and sex comedies, Fenech, a brunette with a jones for heavy mascara, gamely deployed her beauty in various stages of undress, revealing a curvy figure with considerably less discretion than Flaubert allowed the tragic ninny he both pitied and ridiculed.
It’s probably on the shelf of every junior-high library now, but the original Madame Bovary was hugely scandalous — not just in her fictive world of bourgeois discontent, but in the salons, government offices, and courts of actual mid-19th century France. Couched in the most exquisite prose, her hapless infidelities — spurred by the fatal error of having married a nice, very dull country doctor — brought charges of immorality against author and original publisher (when it was serialized in a magazine) that came close to throwing the future pal to George Sand, Turgenev, and Emperor Napoleon III in prison.
Who knows how many titillated readers tried to emulate Emma B.’s suggested shag in a closed horse-drawn carriage only to discover their design in that era would in all likelihood make that exercise conducive to unpleasant contortions and muscle cramps? Perhaps that was another of Flaubert’s little jokes — as a many-mistress’d lifelong bachelor who’d explored the length of the Kinsey Scale (yet never truly moved out of his mother’s house) and had the venereal souvenirs to show for it. Yet one suspects he would have found the subsequent graphic sexualities of later banned books Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, etc. to be merely vulgar.