It would take a stone-cold heart not to feel at least an inkling of pity for Emma Bovary in the novel Madame Bovary, as we follow her character’s discontentment with ordinary life and her consequent dreams of love and wealth. This sympathy, however, is found completely wanting in French-American director Sophie Barthes’ rendition of the 1856 bestseller. Barthes is much less tolerant of the protagonist’s vanity and selfishness. As the first woman to walk the beaten path of adapting the rarely well-filmed 19th century masterpiece, Barthes’ depiction of the ennui that pervades Emma’s life is so convincing that it left us similarly bored stiff.

Raised in a convent, Emma (Mia Wasikowska) is married off to country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). It is not until she settles into her home in Yonville that she begins to feel increasingly bored and trapped. Under these circumstances, she falls under the influence of merchant and creditor Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), buying luxurious ornaments to decorate both her house and herself. She then throws herself into a series of extramarital affairs with the rich Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) and law student Leon (Ezra Miller). 

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As the author of the original novel, Gustave Flaubert’s use of free indirect speech, which uses some of the characteristics of the third person in combination with the essence of first person direct speech, provides the reader access to Emma’s consciousness. It helps the reader develop a sense of understanding and sympathy as she descends down a path of moral and financial ruin. On the other hand, Mia Wasikowska’s constantly furrowed brow and whiny tendencies creates a fiercely unsympathetic character. This is not helped by Henry Lloyd-Hughes’s overly-sympathetic portrayal of Emma’s husband, Charles Bovary. The insight into Emma’s character, so inherent in the novel, is overshadowed by glum looks and an obstinate silence for the first part of the film. This stiffness makes us miss the usual choice of interior monologue that other directors have gone for – which also makes the book so memorable.

The one redeeming quality of the film would have to be the visuals. Collaborating with production designer Benoît Barouh and costumers Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux, Barthes creates a convincing visual portrait of the dead-end provincial France that proved to be Emma’s undoing. Best of all is the poetic quality of Flaubert’s writing captured throughout by Andrij Parekh’s beautiful cinematography. Every detail in Flaubert’s works is chosen with profound artistry, exemplified by what is selected and omitted. His minute attention to detail artistically depicts the banal monotony of average life and this is reflected in the close-up of glistening rain drops clinging to a spiderweb, the use of natural lighting through a window or from a candelabra, and Emma’s pale face slightly distorted through a wall of rain. Parekh’s earthy 35mm lensing alternates between precise angles and handheld camera movements, though at times these shots can be excessively shaky.

Intent on giving a voice to bêtise, Flaubert looked to convey unadorned, unromantic portrayals of everyday life and people. In his novel, it is quite clear that Emma’s unrealistic expectations were the product of the sentimental romance novels that she read. This is curiously omitted and instead, Barthes underlines the repressive societal expectations of women as causes for Emma’s self-destruction. While the film is indeed a beautiful and interesting piece, it has more misses than hits and disappoints in the areas which matters the most.

Madame Bovary opens in theatres 30th July.

Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Genre: Drama
Running time: 118 minutes
Classification: TBA
Rating: 6 out of 10

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