Published Jul 02, 2015Gustave Flaubert's debut novel, Madame Bovary, has long been heralded as a seminal influence on modern realist narration. Though attacked for obscenity at the time of release, arguably for its shift in style, it was noted by Milan Kundera for aiding prose in losing the stigma of artistic inferiority, elevating it to the art of poetry; it transcended its humdrum story through adroit composition.. As such, its status as a text of influence holds historical context beyond the page. It represents change, challenge and influence; it ushered in a new stylistic era by reacting to, and criticising, that which preceded it.
Sophie Barthes' adaptation is far from challenging the cinematic form. The narrative is concise and linear, and the style very much subdued and grounded. It's a stylistic departure from the traditional melodrama of the period piece, utilizing all natural lighting and embracing subtle, realist performances, but it isn't as aggressively contrarian and gritty as something like Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights. There's a calmness amidst the landscape of early 19th Century provincial Normandy that's noted more for its banality and lacklustre mediocrity, despite the attention to superb cinematography and apropos costuming.
This visual style very much represents the inner conflict of the titular Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska). After settling into an arranged marriage with Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd Hughes), a country doctor of some influence, Emma starts on a timeless path of inner conflict and drama, driven by the inherent disconnect between desire and its fulfillment. Emma's romanticized ideal of what her married life should be like comes undone by the quotidian reality of such an arrangement, and when the mundane nature of it all challenges the delusions that drive her ideological framework — a framework constructed by the whimsical, idealized nature of a romantic philosophy — she turns to indulgence and immediate gratification.
Initially, this manifests as material acquisition. Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), the local shopkeeper, preys on young Emma, convincing her of the importance of acquiring the latest fashions and domestic accoutrements. Unfamiliar with the concept of credit and the reach of her husband's financial capacity, she gradually decimates their financial security. She also struggles to ignore the advances of the Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), an affluent acquaintance, and Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller), a similarly romantic and indulgent man of a similar age. These men represent the masculinity and the emotional complexities that her humble, well-intentioned husband is incapable of, respectively.
Barthes' adaptation pushes Charles — the character with whom the audience is predisposed to empathize with — into the periphery, which shifts the focus to Emma almost entirely, humanizing her missteps and highlighting the tragedy of her downfall. What's of particular note in this cleverly rendered rendition of Madame Bovary is the lack of judgment surrounding the events that unfold. Emma, while quietly angry and brimming with unfulfilled passion, is at odds with the social constructs around her; though the demonstration of material wealth and heightened sensuality is theoretically encouraged, Emma's misinterpretation of them, and her inability to accept the disconnect between reality and shared delusion, is really what ruins her.
While the (mostly) grounded performances and low key handling of dramatic affairs serves this film well, Barthes could have presented more of a backdrop of the external influence going into Emma's disposition. The novel mocked and repeatedly noted Emma's preoccupation with romantic literature, but save the occasional complaint and a monologue about being banished from a nunnery, this psychological disposition is mostly left out of the story.
This is likely due to Barthes' interest in mirroring Bovary's struggle to that of modern times. In trying to make meaning out of a life with very little, Emma indulges in a mindless consumer mentality. The need to perform culture and purchase as a means of bridging the gap between advertised happiness and actualized happiness is as much a problem today as it was in the context of this story.
The other minor issue with Madame Bovary is the juxtaposition of modernist, realist acting with the occasional flowery speech. On occasion, Wasikowska's exceedingly internal and carefully calculated performance is hindered by the purple prose that Barthes uses to remain faithful to the text. While it doesn't really hinder the film, it does suggest a slight miscalculation in style modification.
But what works extremely well is the slow examination of Emma's undoing. As much as her actions define her, the world surrounding her is very much predatory. Though our perspective is limited to her experience, our knowledge allows us to identify the motivations and falsities of the many men surrounding her. A traditional take on this story might have vilified Emma or used the text as a soapbox for moralizing, but here, the villain is romantic escapism and our pervasive cultural tendency to make people feel "less than" for not acquiring and performing the conventional idea of "the dream." It's a timeless tragedy, and one that gives this adaptation relevance and dignity, respecting the source material enough to leave it be while highlighting the aspects of it that are pivotal to our time.
(Pacific Northwest Pictures)