Emma Bovary is never anything less than frustrating, so it’s fitting that the latest screen adaptation of Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, should also be frustrating. Directed by Sophie Barthes and co-written by Barthes and Felipe Marino, Madame Bovary is a gorgeous film that is sometimes inspired and sometimes mundane, but is consistently frustrating. The technical aspects are rather stunning, especially the costuming, and Mia Wasikowska is tremendous as Emma, but characterization is uneven, if not outright lacking, throughout the film, and Emma is so f*cking unpleasant it’s hard to engage with the story beyond admiring Emma’s parade of ever more elaborate dresses.
Since the book has been out for over one hundred and fifty years, I’m not going to worry about spoilers. Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma, a young woman in mid-Victorian France who marries Charles, a benign country doctor, and settles into a mundane country life. Eventually Emma grows bored with her unambitious husband and though she rebuffs the attentions of a student who loves her, ultimately she begins an affair with a wealthy, aristocratic man. The student, Leon, is played by the Byronic Ezra Miller, and for the purposes of the film Barthes and Marino actually condense two characters into the dashing Marquis d’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green, aka Tom Hardy’s Doppelganger). As she tries to satisfy her longing for more and richer and better, Emma begins wildly spending until she is completely destitute and finally kills herself. The film actually opens with her suicide and then works back to it from the beginning of her marriage to Charles, which sucks all the tension out of Emma’s mounting troubles throughout the film.
Barthes and Marino do a fairly good job condensing Flaubert’s novel into a two-hour movie, but maybe they were a little too austere in winnowing down the story because they also destroy the sense of narrative time—what takes years to play out in the novel seems to happen in a span of six months, tops, in the movie. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but Emma is such a difficult character that by making it seem like her marital boredom sets in so fast, they pretty much destroy any chance of creating audience sympathy for her. The visual language of the film wants us to feel how restrictive her life is and that being with the Marquis is not just romance but rebellion, but she’s so quick to step out that she doesn’t have time to be restricted enough to have something worth rebelling against.
But Wasikowska is very good as Emma and almost manages to save the entire movie just on the strength of her performance. She can’t quite overcome the time problem, though, and Emma comes across as a shallow, weirdly vindictive person. There is some really good use of visuals as well, to communicate the stifling boredom of Emma’s life until the Marquis swoops in and she peeks into a brighter, richer world of exciting hunting parties and lavish balls, with the darker palette of her clothes slowly giving way to bolder and more colorful gowns as she sinks further into debt and her doomed romance with the Marquis. There is a lot to admire about Barthes’ production values, but little to actually enjoy in the storytelling. Once again, Emma Bovary has frustrated those who would understand her.
Madame Bovary is currently available on demand.