writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published July 15th 2015
Rule of thumb: If the session appears to go quickly, then the movie must be good.
In effect, at just under two hours, Madame Bovary is about much more than a 19th Century French woman living "a-Bovary" means.
If that is all that an audience comes away with, then the sumptuous setting (19th Century rural Normandy), the superb performances by the cast and characters (with the fey Mia Wasikowska in the role of Emma), and engrossing cinematography of Andrij Parekh (real life partner of director Sophia Barthes) will have produced only a 'period' melodrama, not the harrowing tragedy that is the story of "Madame Bovary".
This is because the movie suffers from the original template on which it is based. The 'Rotten Tomatoes' review-board states that "over the years, 'Madame Bovary' has proven an exceedingly difficult film to make". For once, I find myself agreeing with the critics.
There are good reasons for this difficulty. Gustave Flaubert's seminal publication of "Madame Bovary" in 1856 introduced the new genre of "realism" into the novel (called a 'Roman'in France). Paradoxically, Flaubert could only achieve the sense of realism by getting into the subjectivity of his characters. It is the 'psychological determinism' that results from characters who live inside their heads, hurtling against objectively described social contexts, that constitutes the effect of "realism" – and the drama of "Madame Bovary".
It is orthodox wisdom, not least in French Academe, that the style of the novel and its message was a reaction against romanticism and its memes – preternatural inspirations, genius, grand passions, etc… an attempt to make the novel "scientific" (the 19th Century being the era of Romanticism and of "Positivism" in Continental Europe: an unlimited faith in science). It is also acknowledged that "Madame Bovary" made such an impact on the world of letters in general that its influence today has become practically 'invisible' (ubiquitous).
From the first, therefore, it would seem that Emma's character is conceived as a kind of sacrificial scapegoat to an idea, or to the mission of an idea. But there is still more to Emma than this. As an archetype of modern literature, Emma Bovary stands at the crossroads of the "Faustian" spirit of the new centuries (always 'more', at any cost, and the devil may care) and the spirit of alienation which define mass societies today, forever composed of 'individuals', but of individuals who must conform - a paradox of 'realist thinking' which, in spite of orthodox opinion, renders unclear the meaning of Flaubert's intentions towards Emma: Was Flaubert judging the whole of the Romantic attitude which lives in her character (and which attracts the label of 'unrealism') or was he judging the conformity and social conventions by which her character is forced to live, and ultimately to die? The film, like the book, does not shrink from a possible representations of Emma as a dangerous and irresponsible fool, but it does not refrain either from exposing the timidity and viciousness of the 'bourgeois realism' that entraps her and which ultimately destroys her. .
Paul Byrnes of the SMH makes 'language' the cause of the difficulty in transposing Madame Bovary from original text to screen: "The plain language of the book" he says, "was intended to be the star turn; the events of her life merely the vehicle... Movies work the other way around". He is right to focus on the language, but he doesn't develop this insight.
As noted, the technique of realism requires that the author get 'inside the heads' of the characters. This involves extensive (some said "excessive" at the time) descriptions of the world in which they live. These descriptions are really psychological perceptions; the world as it appears to Emma for example, oppressive, unchanging, inescapable, a prison.
They are intense, minute, detailed embroideries that are also writing "tours de force" (with the word "tour" spelled in the plural). How is a cinematography worth its salt - the camera being a quintessentially objective instrument - going to match the power of the pen in creating this illusion, and making it speak to the audience?
Well it could, but the resulting movie would probably be double the length. Sophia Barthes and her cinematographer are forced to take 'shortcuts', which is the one unyielding weakness of this film in telling the story.
As it is, the sequences do a pretty good job of reflecting this aspect of the original template. The audience is merely required to remember to 'view' what they are being shown within the tangle of themes that define the original story: Emma's fierce desire for a life lived intensely; her unrequited longings; the unfulfilled yearnings for romantic happiness, frustrated by a life yoked to the down to earth Charles Bovary (the town's public health official); the inevitable disappointments that result from the banal surroundings of a mediochre and provincial bourgeois setting (the town of Yonville, "eight leagues from Rouen"); the thematic redundancies: Emma unsuccessfully imploring her lover 'Leon Dupuis' (Ezra Miller: "We need to talk About Kevin") for the sake of their love; Emma unsuccessfully imploring her lover, the suave Marquis 'Rodolphe Boulanger' (Logan Marshall-Green: "The Kindness of Strangers") for the sake of their love; or Emma being rejected by the creditor 'L'heureux' (Rhys Ifans, "Christmas Tale: The Movie"), when she tries to prostitute herself; all in the same unsuccessful bid to stave off the financial ruin that she has brought upon herself.
The judgment is clear: above the values which Emma incarnates and which all 'realist' characters in the story pay lip service to, that of money stands supreme. It is this inescapable fact that renders 'louche' (to use an appropriately French aphorism) the standard accepted interpretation of Madame Bovary; it is, at any rate, very much a cause of the ambient mediochrity that checks her soul and ultimately seals her fate. This indeterminacy of meaning about the work is common to all great art; it is in fact what separates art from 'black and white' propaganda. It is also what raises Sophia Barthe's film above the level of grand melodrama and into the sphere of tragedy proper.
The cast, some critics have said, are hopelessly miscast: they are an eclectic bunch, speaking with a variety of accents, mostly not French. This is irrelevant nonsense. The cast is superb.
Henry Lloyd Hughes ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") brings a greater degree of combativeness to the character of 'Charles' (Emma's husband), whom Flaubert describes through his conversations: "as flat as a sidewalk on which perambulated everyone's view but his own"! But as the film proceeds, you come to accept the dark brooding softness that Lloyd Hughes brings to the role, like a foreboding of something waiting to happen, in lieu of the straight-out passivity of the original character.
Of the two main supporting parts, those of the pharmacist 'Homais' (Paul Giamatti: "The Cinderella Man") and of the money lender 'L'heureux' (Rhys Ifans) it is hard to decide which is the more brilliant. Giamatti, with a beautiful speaking voice that could raise the dead, does credit to the role of the politically ambitious Homais, who wants to put the 'town on the map' (through some 'achievement of science') and who tricks the unready Bovary into performing an unnecessary operation (the rectification of a club foot), with disastrous consequences for the patient (Luke Tittensor). Rhys Ifans, on the other hand, is peerless as the insidious salesman of luxurious goods (with ready credit), a worldly man who knows how to play his debtors in order to entrap them and grow his money kingdom. It is a dark irony which is no doubt intentional on Flaubert's part, that of all the potential suitors within reach in Emma's search for romantic happiness, this one is the only true seductor, and he bears a name which, to compound irony with mockery, means "blessed with happiness" in French. Rhys Ifans is perfect for the part: Obviously, if Emma's romanticism is naïve, Bourgeois realism is suitably deceptive…
Finally there is Mia Wasikowska ("Jane Eyre"), Emma Bovary herself. In the novel, much is made of Emma's education and the romantic books that she reads. Her story has even given rise to the naming of a syndrome: "Bovarism" (for those who imagine themselves other than they really are). But look at Don Quixote: his medieval romances are blamed just as much for his career, yet he is no less of an archetype! The movie alludes to this aspect of Emma's psyche in so cursory a manner as to render it irrelevant, something that audiences are barely meant to notice. Her death by arsenic is also modified. In the book, it was meant to dispel any final illusions: nothing 'romantic' about an agonising death, which Flaubert, as usual, took pains to describe in realistic detail. In the movie, it is treated equally cursorily, in the manner of an existential exit. We think that these down-tonings from the part of the director are deliberate. If Madame Bovary was ever meant to be a morality tale (an attack on Romanticism), for this Emma, the problem is other: to put it in philosophical terms 'essence does not coincide with existence'. This gives Wasikowska's 'Emma' a very contemporary flavour. I do not know if Sophie Barthes' movie succeeds in turning Emma Bovary into a contemporary heroine, but if it does, Wasikowska's performance brings to the role the right kind of gracile strength, the kind of frail steeliness that is at once the stamp of a very contemporary determination amongst women, and the guarantee of her own demise as a tragic character.
In short, due to the restrictions imposed by the original template on which Sophia Barthes' film is based, and to the ambiguities outlined therein, this is a movie that hovers on the edge of greatness.