I feel it’s important to be up front about this: Though I’d never read the book, I had incredibly high expectations of the latest adaptation of Madame Bovary.
The anticipation math on this equalled me practically drooling over every bit of news about its production. First off, it stars Australian ingenue Mia Wasikowska. Aside from being a compelling talent, the girl has shown a keen skill for picking outstanding period piece scripts between Jane Eyre, Lawless, Stoker and the upcoming Crimson Peak.*
Secondly, Madame Bovary is the long-awaited follow-up to director Sophie Barthes’ debut Cold Souls, a cerebral comedy that I found witty, wild and bittersweet. So I was giddy imagining what Barthes’ take on Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel would be like.
Rumor had it Barthes was looking to give the tale a feminist bent that made its long-criticized anti-heroine easier to empathize with. So, I suspected this yet-to-be-made movie would be a perfect companion piece to Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, my favorite film of 2012. Then Barthes cast Ezra Miller and his I-want-to-go-there dark locks as the one of Madame Bovary’s beaus. This was going to be brilliant and beautiful, right? RIGHT!?
Eh. Half-right. The film is lovely to look at, not just for its gorgeous romantic leads (that also include Logan Marshall-Green and Henry Lloyd-Hughes), but also for its vibrant colors, and Emma Bovary’s eleganza extravaganza of fashion. But beyond that it’s a pretty mediocre period piece.
We begin with Emma at school, a convent where she is far too spirited to take lessons in walking with a book on her head seriously. She seems lively, and eager for her life to begin. But marrying a country doctor is not all she’d dreamed of. She soon discovers her new home in a quiet French village is to be without purpose, culture, or love. Her husband is polite, but far from passionate, describing the duty of their lovemaking as “all part of nature.” Emma tries to find joy in cooking or gardening, but gets no encouragement and so grows frustrated.
It’s easy to relate to Emma feeling flustered by her gilded cage. But Barthes goes too far in striving for our empathy, painting all the men of Emma’s life as single-minded opportunists who are to truly to blame for all her troubles. Like a dark cloud on the horizon, a chic salesman (Rhys Ifans) appears, promising to be Emma’s truest friend and offering her divine dresses on credit. Emma—so in need of something to bolster her self-esteem—is soon putty in his hands, spending money she doesn’t have without a second thought.
Then comes the temptation of a sultry young romantic (Miller), then the attentions of a rugged Marquis (Marshall-Green). How is she to deny herself these potential pleasures when her home life is so endlessly unfulfilling? Even her husband (Lloyd-Hughes) and his friend (Giamatti) only look at Emma as a tool for their needs, be it trophy wife or co-conspirator.
I get the idea. But in execution, Barthes’ narrative is undermined by her inattention to developing any character aside from Emma. The result is that every male that surrounds her is a caricature of vice, be they vanity, greed, or lust.
2012’s Anna Karenina also told the tale of a notorious adulteress of literature in a compassionate light. The difference between the two is—on a narrative level—that Anna Karenina’s screenplay allowed the heroine’s hurt husband to be seen as human too. Theirs was not a passionate marriage, but neither was it a bad one. It just wasn’t the stuff a girl dreams of, making its finale all the more tragic.
The same could go for Madame Bovary. But her cuckold without a clue is given no courtesy in characterization, and so just seems an oblivious boob whose keeping her down. Presumably audiences who seek out this genre of cinema could handle more sophisticated stories than bored trophy wife deserves nice things! But Barthes doesn’t develop Madame Bovary beyond this simple concept, and so denies her film a potential richness in emotion and conflict. Which does her heroine a disservice too.
Perhaps the simple sketched male characters wouldn’t have been a problem if the style of the film itself were cartoonish or grandly unconventional in some respect. But while the costume design is breathtaking, little else about Madame Bovary’s visuals or devices is worth note. The cinematography is serviceable. The performances are competent, and the onscreen couplings even occasionally bristle with heat. But the tale is given nothing remarkably fresh or fascinating with this approach. Instead, Emma continues to make obvious mistakes, refusing to consider their consequences. It becomes repetitive, and increasingly frustrating, trying our patience and empathy.
Ultimately, Madame Bovary is a fine film. But just fine. How disappointing when it had the pieces to be so much more.