'Abraham Valley', a loose update of 'Madame Bovary', is easily the finest, most nuanced and adventurous adaptation of Flaubert's classic novel. Director Manoel de Oliveira keeps the main outline of the book - the young Emma, daughter of a lax landownver, marries a decent but dull older doctor called Charles (Carlos), and stifles in a respectable social milieu of parties and country mansions, escaping through a series of adulterous liaisons. Unlike her literary ancestor, though, Emma is not characterised as an impressionable reader of romances - the only book we see her reading is 'Madame Bovary', to whose heroine she repeatedly denies any similarity.
'Update' is the wrong word for what de Oliveira does in this extraordinary film. Like his other literary adaptations (most recently his reworking of Mme de Lafayette's 'The Princess of Cleves', 'The Letter'), the director plays with a variety of time-scales. Whatever its status as a 'modern' novel, 'Bovary' is still recognisably a 19th century work, replicated here in the dominant, omniscient third-person narrator, who traverses all social boundaries, comments and philosophises freely and has access to each character's innermost thoughts and feelings. The setting, however, is more contemporary (referring in passing to a 1974 revolution), with its modern clothes, cars, conveniences. The film fuses this familiar setting and what takes place in it, elaborate rituals and gatherings, and archaic modes of thought and speech that belong not only to the 19th century, but also the elegant formality of de Oliveira's beloved 18th; some compositions even recall the Renaissance paintings liberally alluded to throughout. In its choreography of long, static tableaux, performance, locations (interior and exterior), colour and music, the film frequently recalls that other great, hypnotic literary adaptation, Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'.
'Abraham Valley' is Total Cinema, de Oliveira's deceptively flat compositions and largely unmoving camera achieving a Bressonian three-dimensionality, through the equivalent importance given to sound, movement (or lack of) and light (when the camera does move, it feels giddy and miraculous). Flat scenes suddenly become layered, still empty spaces foregrounded while miniature activity bustles in the deep-focus background. The narrative itself is similarly dense, the apparent point of any given scene deflecting deeper, more penetrating concerns (the brilliant violin soiree, for instance; or the political discussion pressure-cooked by a cat being stroked). The surface of narrative and psychology is constantly being penetrated to open out older, less tangible, even superstitious and primeval mysteries, revealed through mirrors, trance-like rites, or the uncanny influence of moon and river. The generally restrained use of colour can quickly explode with a burning red rose or shimmer with a hazy white and pale blue dress.
Be warned, 'Valley' will not be to everyone's taste: at a leisurely three hours, it demands intense concentration and openness - some will find it interminable and pretentious. Give in to its rhythm and strange beauty, however, and you will be rewarded with one of the richest experiences in modern cinema.