Directed by Sophie Barthes
The classic story of Emma Bovary, the beautiful wife of a small-town doctor in 19th century France, who engages in extra marital affairs in an attempt to advance her social status.
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★★★★ review by Ben Smith on Letterboxd
Heavy frocks and tightly bound corsets typify Sophie Barthes’s retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary; an unromantic film of stuffy inertia that wears the clothes of Sunday teatime period drama, but locks its conflicted, opaque emotions somewhere far deeper. The skies are perpetually overcast and there is a spider in the bouquet of flowers.
Pitched as the first of the novel’s many adaptations to be helmed by a woman, Barthes may not exactly seek compassion for the doomed Mrs. Bovary, but she guides us towards sympathy for the life she has been thrust into, shifting the central focus to Emma rather than her husband Charles. Groomed as a ‘lady’ and married off to a respectable provincial doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), her fate was never in her hands. So as Emma Bovary’s dreams of education and spiritual enrichment one by one fall by the wayside, and the shapeless rigmarole of married life with her wet blanket of a husband reveals itself, it is no surprise she seeks pleasure, or passion, or anything, elsewhere. There are carnal affairs with the travelled soulful Leon (Ezra Miller) and the all-powerful Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) – but it is with her reckless spending with local merchant Monsieur Lheureux (a sparkling Rhys Ifans) that she finds most trouble, stockpiling oriental fabrics, furniture and oysters; grasping for something to plug her emptiness. But from the opening flash-forward and Galperine’s score that airily lilts with foreboding, we know there is a wound in her that will continue to bleed.
Never explicit in motivation, it is unclear – to Bovary and us – what the young woman is seeking. Her affairs and lavish spending bring intermittent joy, but the empty soullessness of her own existence consumes all. Madame Bovary conveys this increasing apathy splendidly, transforming Wasikowska from a carefree, unruly student to the listless woman crushed by her marriage. The experience drags its thick, ornate petticoats through deeper and deeper mud, always on the verge of relinquishing our interest entirely. But there is something in this remote, melancholy character that draws us through her every turmoil. Actions are not excused, but neither are they spiteful. Wasikowska is, again, superb, continuing her rise to dominance, selecting challenging work that provides her with real character to delve into – and here silently exhibiting the level of alienating detachment and fragility that this odd, conflicted anti-heroine requires.
Madame Bovary explores the constraints of sex and circumstance placed upon Emma. Keeping to the lines of a conventional structure, it merely suggests counterpoints to her decisions as the drama elegantly unfolds. While the narrative may not be punchy enough for some, and the aforementioned prelude dulls any suspense, as a singular mood piece of sumptuous period imagery that admirably explores its themes Madame Bovary is hard to fault.
Its retelling now in a culture of encouraged superficial pursuits and rampant consumerism feels somehow right. Real Housewives of 19th Century Provincial France. To Lheureux she is just a blank cheque, to the Marquis she is just a trinket; but Emma Bovary is a thoroughly modern woman – albeit one worn down, suffocated and mistreated by the men in her life. But under this near-feminist reading lurk several moral shades of grey that keep Barthes’s Bovary an engrossingly conflicted soul.
★★★½ review by teamzizzou on Letterboxd
Although never getting out of third gear, i found the film to be absorbing with Wasikowska a illuminating presence. Resplendent Costume design and the beautiful scenery made up for the plodding plot.
★★★★ review by martika on Letterboxd
balances on the edge of boredom, but makes up for it with beautiful cinematography
★★★★ review by Filmvsbook on Letterboxd
A thing of beauty. Captivating and feels like you've stepped into a painting.
★★★½ review by Clark on Letterboxd
Gustave Flaubert's debut novel Madame Bovary is one of those literary chestnuts that gets revived for a new audience every couple of decades or so. The first prominent film adaptation was Albert Ray's Unholy Love (the same story with a sensationalist title), while Vincente Minnelli's larger production (starring Jennifer Jones and James Mason) arrived in 1949. David Lean offered a modern reworking of the story with his 1970 epic Ryan's Daughter, and Claude Chabrol turned in the most critically acclaimed adaptation to date in 1991. According to my calender, it should be just about... oh! Well, here's the 2015 version of Madame Bovary, right on time.
The thing that sets the latest Madame Bovary apart from its predecessors is that this is the first adaptation helmed by a woman - an important difference, given that the story is fundamentally an attempt to understand a woman's actions. Director Sophie Barthes (who previously gave us the excellent-but-overlooked existential drama Cold Souls) doesn't bring a lot of new ideas to the table, but this is nonetheless a handsomely-staged, well-acted production of a literary classic.
In an effort to keep the film's running time manageable without losing the substance of the tale, Barthes basically lops off the opening and closing sections of the book, opting to limit her focus to the marriage of Charles (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Anna Karenina) and Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre). Charles is a humble country doctor with a reserved personality, while Emma is a romantic who dreamt that married life would be something vastly more exciting. Eventually, Emma begins to seek escape by engaging in a series of extramarital affairs and by spending her husband's money on expensive clothes and trinkets.
Emma is not a particularly good person - she is ultimately defined by selfishness, snobbery and infidelity - but it's to Barthe's credit (and to Flaubert's) that we still manage to feel for her in spite of everything. Madame Bovary doesn't gawk at bad behavior and cluck its tongue, but rather seeks to help us understand what made Emma the sort of person she becomes. A telling moment arrives early, when Emma spends an afternoon making an elaborate meal for her husband - a process she greatly enjoys. Charles thanks her, but quickly suggests that she ought not spend so much time on food preparation. "The maid will take care of it," he says. His suggestion isn't rooted in dismissiveness or malice - he's genuinely attempting to save her the effort - but it's the first of many little reminders that life for a country doctor's wife in 19th century France is terminally dull. Charles is a good man, but clearly a poor match for his wife - his no-nonsense practicality meshes poorly with Emma's lust for life. Emma is a passionate woman, and that passion quickly withers within the confines of marriage.
The chief villain of Madame Bovary is mere circumstance, but a couple of others are happy to assist. First, we have the duplicitous Monsiuer Homas (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), a local pharmacist who secretly plots to undercut Charles' career. Second, we have the vile Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans, Pirate Radio), a dry-goods dealer who recognizes Emma's weakness for luxury and takes advantage of it. Lheureux constantly reminds Emma that he is willing to extend her credit ("Charles is good for it!"), all the while waiting for just the right moment to call in the debt. Clearly, the world of Madame Bovary is vastly different from the one most of us currently live in, but Giamatti's professional jealousy and Ifans' professional greed feel uncomfortably familiar (Ifans is more or less the personification of those credit card offers you're always getting in the mail).
Wasikowska is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and you never catch her overplaying any stage of Emma's transformation. Contrast her discontented haughtiness here with her gleeful madness in Only Lovers Left Alive, her oddball inquisitiveness in Map to the Stars and her long-suffering heartbreak in Jane Eyre and you begin to see the depth of her range. In every case, she's alarmingly natural and convincing. She's remarkable during Madame Bovary's closing scenes, underplaying wildly melodramatic moments to heartbreaking effect. The film's handheld cinematography quietly underlines the film's turbulent emotions, and prevents the movie from feeling too much like a Masterpiece Theatre production.
If the film has one significant weakness, it's that Emma's assorted lovers are a little bland. That's completely intentional in the case of Charles (played with affecting cluelessness by Lloyd-Hughes), but the young Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and the wealthy Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) come across as dullards of different stripes. They are supposed to represent the sort of exciting alternatives to Charles the world has to offer (Leon shares Emma's romanticism, while the Marquis shares her affection for expensive things), but neither actor manages to make much of an impression.
Still, Wasikowska sells everything she needs to sell even when her co-stars don't, and that's enough to make the film work. This isn't a definitive adaptation of Flaubert's novel, but it's an absorbing take on the story that benefits from Barthes' light touch. In a bold move, the film opens with Emma's death, then jumps back in time and works its way back to that point. The result of this spoiler-y decision is that we spend less time wondering what will happen to Emma and more time focusing on why things happen to Emma. In other words, our focus is redirected in a way that allows us to pay attention to what the story is really about. Not every departure from the original text works, but the boldness is commendable.
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