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"The Lost Film Oeuvre of Gustave Flaubert"
Published in Cimarron Review, Winter/Spring 1999 Issue 
Written by Phillip Koch



     After he finished Madame Bovary in 1856, Flaubert felt he needed a respite as the experience was emotionally draining and impinged on his social life. He bravely embarked on an artistic adventure which resulted in four short films. None of these films survive today for they were photographed on a primitive black and white film stock that deteriorated rapidly. However, a great deal about these early cinematic works can be gleaned from newspaper articles and reviews in Paris Soir and other periodicals that chronicled the birth of French cinema. The only surviving physical artifacts from the films are promotional stills in the permanent collection of the Cinematheque in Paris, France.

     Flaubert's directorial debut, "Les Milles Toques" (released in English-speaking countries as "Land of A Thousand Nuts") is a technically ragged but spirited picaresque that takes us on a joyous romp through the streets of Tunis. Flaubert plays himself, an irrepressible farceur who dances through the marketplace with a goat and an army of giggling urchins yapping at their heels. There are undulating nautch girls, swirls of diaphanous robes, and cryptically at the end, a montage of Italian cathedral facades that is either Flaubert's scathing indictment of church censorship or, more likely, filler inserted by a timid distributor.

     At the premiere, tensions were high as the crowd of le tout Paris settled in their seats. The hushed theater was soon filled with cries and cheers of encouragement as Flaubert, whose cameraman had badly misjudged the focus, frantically tried to move the projector closer to the screen to correct the mistake. Sarah Bernhardt, who was to later walk off the set of Flaubert's ill-fated epic production of Beowulf, announced that the film was an artistic triumph and that the film would revolutionize cinematic conventions. Mme. Bernhardt left abruptly with her entourage when an usher politely asked her to hold her remarks until the end of the show.

     The ambitious production of Beowulf, which was to be Flaubert's second film, was jinxed by the failure of the special effects team to come up with a convincingly fearsome Grendel. The Divine Sarah famously played characters without artifice or even make-up, portraying the youthful Salome well into her sixties. The trade paper Cine Mode, commenting on the usual "creative differences" on the set, reported that an unnamed crew member thought Mme. Bernhardt didn't need makeup for Grendel; she was scary enough to begin with. After she was handed this unsigned gossip item, Mme. Bernhardt stormed out of her dressing room, pledging to exact terrible revenge on the perpetrator of this cowardly attack. Flaubert was apparently just as appalled by the incident. Wrapping himself in black cloth as a gesture of solidarity, he rushed by foot directly to the Gare St. Lazare where he took the very next train to St. Tropez in the south of France and stayed there for six months. Despite Mme. Bernhardt's numerous telegrams and entreaties to finish what for her would have been her only performance captured on film, Flaubert ordered that the sets be dismantled and the costumes sold.

     Flaubert donated the test footage and out-takes of Beowulf to the Ministry of the Interior to gain a badly needed tax deduction. The priceless footage spontaneously burned in a storeroom during the particularly cruel winter of 1862, severely damaging the historic ministry building on the Boulevard Raspail. This calamitous event impressed the young film industry on the need for a less volatile film stock and for a cheap, readily available fossil fuel. Finally, Thomas A. Edison and George Eastman, who had collaborated previously on the libretto of The Student Prince, developed a nitrate-based film stock which also burned but far more slowly.

     With his second feature film, "Allons Cuisinier Concasser" (released in English-speaking countries as "Let's Put the Cook in the Cuisinart and See What Happens"), Flaubert tried his hand at suspense and horror. Once again, he assembled his faithful band of technicians, this time at a lonely farmhouse location twenty kilometers southeast of Paris. He was able to complete the graveyard scene, most of the interiors and the bearnaise sauce for the evening meal before the crew dropped all the equipment and ran off into the countryside, screaming something about a curse and violating natural laws. Local legend claims that Flaubert's whoops of mocking laughter can still be heard echoing in that narrow desolate valley on the Loire river.

     The gala opening of "Allons Cuisinier Concasser" is also the landmark occasion of a bold coup de theatre. In those early days of cinema, Flaubert felt free to experiment and on an impulse and at great artistic risk, Flaubert jettisoned the film's baroque soundtrack only days before the first public screening. This caused Hector Berlioz to burst into tears as he had spent three months working on the score. Flaubert was crushed by the public's indifference to the film and bitterly withdrew it from circulation. The film would later be re-discovered by less discerning audiences in the southern provinces, curiously dubbed into Swedish.

     Flaubert got the idea for his third film, "Soupcon de Bon Gout" (released in English as "Take the Ragout and Run") after reading about Marseilles nightlife in a fashion magazine. It was to be little more than a boudoir comedy vehicle for Beatrice Person, an ingenue from the Comedie Francaise and Flaubert's sometime mistress. This film created an immediate scandal by implying that Napoleon was an incurable mama's boy who liked to dress in effeminate attire. The public uproar almost ruined Flaubert until it was pointed out that men with certain builds can wear that look without threatening their masculinity, particularly if one coordinates separate pieces in complimentary earth tones.

    The first preview of "Soupcon de Bon Gout" was a disaster. Only polite applause was heard at the end but Flaubert noticed tears in some of the women's eyes. Working feverishly against a firm release schedule, Flaubert ordered all of the advertising materials re-designed and then locked himself in an editing room. An all-night locksmith was found and soon after, the former comedy was promoted as melodrama and became an instant underground hit, breaking attendance records at the Opera and Etoile Metro stops.

     Flaubert's fourth and final film, "Les Flans du Mal" ("Most Diets Forbid Custard" in English-speaking countries) is a richly imagined, dense confection of fantasies filmed almost entirely in Maxim's kitchen, just after the dinner rush. It is filled with in-jokes: Emile Zola is seen reading a copy of Cahiers du Cinema; glaring incongruities: the Fifteenth Arrondisement is meant to represent Los Angeles; and sheer nonsense: a bravura set piece which involves a chorus line of barmaids and an uninhibited sous chef was clearly staged to exploit its intended audience's prurient interest.

     After a series of screenings failed to arouse the right type of publicity, Flaubert generously offered to explicate this, his most ambitious work, in a packed public forum moderated by his more traditional and older literary rival, Victor Hugo. Flaubert set the tone of the discussion by wearing dark-colored spectacles and playfully addressing the venerated figure as "mon petit caporal" ("my little corporal") as M. Hugo was brought on stage in a wheelchair. After a heated debate, Flaubert admitted that the film was inspired by a bad dream he had experienced after a night of drinking in the Place Pigalle. In an eloquent speech in his own defense, Flaubert volunteered to lead the audience to the exact spot on the quai where the mists rising over the Seine are particularly entrancing but by that time the hall was nearly empty. "Tres amusant," sniffed M. Hugo who promptly wheeled himself off the stage and into the orchestra pit.

     When M. Hugo was revived, he cried out, "Revenons a nos moutons!", ("Let us return to our sheep!") which greatly alarmed the physician who rushed to assist him. The earnest doctor prescribed hot tea, bed rest and two hours of bloodletting. After a great deal of hand-wringing amongst M. Hugo's friends, it was finally determined that he probably had a little too much to drink earlier in the evening and it would be best if they just put him in a cab so they could all go home.

     For Gustave Flaubert, the success de scandale only confirmed what legions of his fans already knew, that he was madness apotheosized and that he only used Gruyere cheese, freshly laid eggs and the whole mushroom, not just the caps, in his specialite de la maison, Les Oefs au Gus. In quick succession, he was declared a Chevalier du Legion du Honer, an auteur of the first rank, and an honorary graduate of the Cordon Bleu. Feeling refreshed and vindicated, Flaubert quietly renewed interest in his first love, pornography, and was also able to resume wine-making, his life-long avocation, producing one memorable vintage, a lusty, impertinent claret, just before his death in 1880.


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Producer/Director Phillip Koch &TV/Film Producer Norman Lear

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Harold Ramis interviewed for the PBS program "The American Flag"