Madame Bovary (2014)

Madame Bovary (2014)
  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Sophie Barthes
  • Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Ezra Miller, Paul Giamatti


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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  • “My dear Emma,” one character tells Gustave Flaubert’s titular (anti)heroine, “you are unrelentingly standing under an apple tree wishing to smell the scent of orange blossoms.” For Emma, barely out of her teens and fresh out of her convent education, real life is not quite matching her expectations.

    One can see the confusion and simmering disgust in her eyes as she surveys her new and modest home. After a night of perfunctory lovemaking, she’s disappointed to be left alone as her husband Charles (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) sets off on his doctorly duties. Charles is well-meaning, but too staid for a young wife who bred her imagination on romance novels. Emma plays at being a dutiful wife, but many in the town appear to recognise a certain pliability in her moral compass. Local merchant Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans) flatters her taste and style whilst dazzling her with an array of fine and very expensive things. Don’t worry about the cost, he assures her, she can always purchase on credit.

    Charles’ friend, village pharmacist Monsieur Homais (Paul Giamatti), fans her social ambitions, asking her help in convincing Charles to perform a career-making operation on a clubfooted young man. Charles recognises the surgery is beyond his capability but relents to make her happy. It goes terribly wrong, of course, and Emma barely conceals her loathing over his failing her. She loses herself in a series of affairs: first with the dashing Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), whose self-proclaimed disregard for societal conventions stokes her romantic fantasies, and then on an equally doomed coupling with a young clerk of more modest means, Leon (Ezra Miller).

    Madame Bovary has been adapted numerous times for film and television, though this version is one of the few instances where it has been shepherded by a woman’s touch (Anne Fontaine helmed the recent modern-day telling, Gemma Bovery). Sophie Barthes doesn’t necessarily shed any new insights on Emma’s plight. There are a handful of scenes showing the layers of clothing that straitjacket Emma, who always seems on the verge of suffocation; the scenes serve to emphasise the constraints of marriage and morality which imprison Emma. Strangely, Barthes and co-screenwriter Felipe Marino choose to omit Emma’s daughter. There’s much hand-wringing and gazing out of windows and solitary strolls through the countryside – all signifiers of the monotony and boredom of Emma’s everyday life. “Is my future just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end?” Emma wonders.

    Emma’s ruination is depicted in a naturalistic palette by cinematographer Andrij Parekh, who alternates between almost severely precise compositions and unobtrusive handheld camera movements. Benoit Barouh’s production design is faultless as is Valerie Ranchoux’s costuming. Madame Bovary is very pretty to look at, but inordinately dull to watch.

    Ezra Miller has the face and locks of a Caravaggio rent boy, but convinces not a single whit as Leon. Lloyd-Hughes barely registers. Marshall-Green, Ifans, and Giamatti do what they can to burst through the heavy-handedness, but it’s a losing battle. Mia Wasikowska is a gifted actress, but Emma proves to be a moving target for her. At times, she effectively conveys Emma’s capriciousness, her self-absorption, her desperation, her complete and utter disregard for everything except her own happiness. At other times, she comes off as a bratty and ungrateful teenager. Wasikowska blooms in the later stages when the immensity of Emma’s situation bears down and she lashes out at not being able to get her way.

    Throughout the film, there are gaps in Wasikowska’s portrayal. She doesn’t fully bridge the transition from romantic dreamer to disillusioned housewife to the reckless architect of her own destruction. Emma doesn’t truly know what she wants. She tries to sate her yearnings with lavish clothes and furnishings. It’s not the Marquis and Leon that attract her, it’s what they represent – passion, adventure, a different life, a different version of herself. Emma’s fatal flaw is not that she desires beyond her means or beyond her place, but rather her inability and stubborn refusal to acknowledge and accept her reality.

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