Madame Bovary (2014)

Fiction’s most famous adulteress Emma Bovary returns to the big screen in yet another adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s once-scandalous 1856 novel, Madame Bovary. Directed by Sophie Barthes — the first female to tackle the project — Madame Bovary tells a morbidly tragic tale, one that highlights the dreariness of 19th century provincial life, in what’s considered to be among literature’s best written works; a complex but multi-layered human study of a heroine seeking a life that was clearly not meant to be. This new Madame Bovary feature however, is simply just another in a long line of film adaptations that fails to truly explore the character’s rich, complex psyche as Emma struggles to transcend from the ordinary life in which she feels trapped, with the picture offering little more than a surface level revision of Flaubert’s multifaceted tale.

Vail of Deceit
Vail of Deceit

Set in Normandy, France, Madame Bovary is the story of Emma (Mia Wasikowska), a beautiful young woman who impulsively marries a small-town doctor of modest talent, Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), leaving her father’s farm behind for a chance at a life of wealth and glamor. After being introduced to the alluring world of high society, Emma realizes that living her days as a doctor’s wife isn’t as appealing as she once thought. Emma eventually finds temporary solace from her boredom and disdain by decorating her home with expensive fabrics or wearing the latest fashion but later turns to extramarital affairs in an effort to seek further excitement. Alas, when Emma’s overspending and illicit sexual behavior are brought to light, she must cope with the repercussions of her shady and questionable actions.

This new and superficially faithful take of Madame Bovary starts at the end, with Emma’s fate already sealed as she’s running through the woods — poison flowing through her veins. The flick then jumps back to the beginning of her story, where viewers learn that Emma was raised at a proper convent school, subtly hinting that her downfall started at an early age. While we see Emma get training in music, drawing and general etiquette, writer-director Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls (2009), has oddly decided to slice much of Emma’s back-story down, removing her early obsession with romance novels, which form the bulk of her distorted worldview and fuel the majority of the torment that goes through Emma’s mind. Without this groundwork laid out from the get-go, some might find the titular character as unlikable or cold, whilst the story’s real emotion is lost with the picture playing out like a mildly entertaining shell of a more intricate narrative.

Well dressed but still depressed!
Well dressed but still depressed!

Ignoring the multiplicity of accents on display, the film’s casting is a bit of a mixed bag. Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre (2011) — in her fifth 19th century period drama — tightens the corset yet again as the infamous Emma Bovary, and while her portrayal is somewhat sweet and respectable, Wasikowska lacks that commanding presence needed to truly convey the character’s many emotional layers, her inner-struggle and sensuality. Despite the fact that Wasikowska’s unsympathetic act fails to capture the anti-heroine’s depth, the bulk of the film’s supporting players hold the piece together. Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Anna Karenina (2012), is decent as Charles Bovary, a quiet, humble doctor with little ambition whereas Paul Giamatti, The Illusionist (2006), relishes every line as Monsieur Homais, a pharmacist who’s eager to mix up the mechanics of traditional medicine in order to try a few new techniques and procedures, all in the name of progress of course. Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus (2012), has fun with his role as the handsome worldly Marquis d’Andervilliers whilst Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), embodies Leon Dupuis, a charming law student who comes across as a love-sick school boy; with both Emma’s lovers processing a charismatic vigor that’s missing from her hapless husband, its easy to see why she’s so drawn to them. Finally, Rhys Ifans, Anonymous (2011), hams it up as Monsieur Lheureux, a smarmy merchant who drives Emma and her husband into financial ruin with his extravagant offers.

Given the provocative nature of Flaubert’s tragic tale of forbidden pleasures, this new feature lacks the genuine titillation and steamy passion of its source material and remains pretty much grounded in reality, for the most part. Thankfully, Madame Bovary is populated by an array of gorgeous, elegant costumes and lavish visuals, which have been stylishly shot by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, Blue Valentine (2010), who showcases many of Emma’s over-expensive luxuries and the French countryside with relieve ease. Although viewer’s eyes will no doubt be fixated on the picture’s many visual delights, a sharper focus on the story, particularly the forces that shaped Emma or her eventual anguish — and cruelty towards her husband — would have tightened the overall production as Wasikowska’s Bovary appears to be just another ill-natured victim of her own selfish desires and foolish disposition; as Flaubert stated, ‘She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.’

... self reflection?
… self reflection?

By no means ‘bad,’ Sophie Barthes’ Madame Bovary is a mildly entertaining adaptation that unfortunately suffers from the same problems that weighed down its many other film and television translations, all of which failed to capture the emotional intricacy of Flaubert’s character — or challenge viewer’s perception of the woman in question. Bar a few casting missteps, this new Madame Bovary feature is a credible attempt at re-visioning Flaubert’s celebrated masterwork, a literary classic that’s known for being notoriously difficult to shoot. Selfish villain or tragic heroine? … You choose!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Madame Bovary is released through Transmission Films Australia