There must be at least 10 film and television adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 book about French affairs and crippling depression. What’s new here? What makes this adaptation special? Why make a Madame Bovary film now, in this style? Maybe these are the wrong questions.
The delicate Mia Wasikowska plays famed literary calamity Emma Bovary, who, in 2015, is still well dressed and still depressed. For those who weren’t assigned the novel in English class, Emma Bovary just married a widowed country doctor in provincial France. She’s a farmer’s daughter, and, for all intents and purposes, Bovary marries up and immediately regrets it. Or rather, the Madame grows immediately bored of her plain, modest husband, and she’s deeply unhappy. Romantic candle-lit dinners with talk of leeches and blood-letting? Not Bovary’s bag. She wants romance, good feelings, anything but the comatose wife stuff.
So what soothes Bovary’s surface-level despondence? Extramarital affairs. Fine goods like custom clothing and other merchandise. This isn’t the high-society ennui of a bored wife, but a realist novel centered around a woman in crisis, seemingly incapable of happiness. She feels unsupported. She feels constant dread and joylessness. And we watch her unflinching downward spiral. That right there is the book’s, and the seemingly faithful film adaptation’s, deal.
Scandalous, right? It’s surreal to think about how Flaubert faced trial on obscenity charges and how that’s boosted the book’s literary esteem and sales. The same thing sort of still happens today with “too hot” properties, minus the courtroom drama. Controversy’s a lucrative thing! But Madame Bovary was daring in its willingness to explore the emotional nadir of one woman as it tried to understand her.
How does this new adaptation go about representing Bovary’s plight? A calm, naturalistic experience, Madame Bovary is refreshingly analog. Watching director Sophie Barthes’ exquisite framework and patient gaze on Bovary is almost like looking at graceful countryside Andrew Wyeth paintings. There may a great deal of doctored Instagram saturation on display, but there’s nothing digital about the staging and locations, and it’s a curious plus. By working with naturally lit shots in real spots and bringing out the richest colors in post, Barthes gives us a song of sadness with fuchsia sunsets, blue mornings, and turquoise and brown interiors. There’s a lot of care for every shot.
The deep focus creates a non-judgmental environment for Bovary’s decline to be observed rather than commented on. Barthes isn’t interested in putting a stamp on the character, but rather in setting up the story to evolve organically. In that way, Bovary is often absorbing as a scenic historical fiction about mental health and gender roles. Those are Barthes’ choices for this take, and it at least helps offset the dour demeanor of the whole thing. Sort of.
Skipping shots, there’s a sense of elongated dread here that could easily alienate a casual viewer. Ask yourself: Do you want to see the artisanal dissolution of a French teen in the 1800s? The movie’s praise-worthy for its patience, but defeating overall. Madame Bovary leaves a parting sensation of sadness, not enlightenment; it might be a more fecund experience if we could feel both ways.
Bovary doesn’t ask for sympathy, nor does anyone in it, and it’s not given. They’re just people of the time with emotions too advanced to find anything but dismissal. This Bovary’s melancholia plays as chilly, emotionally distant fodder for what you could call 19th century torture porn.