Mark Reviews Movies

Madame Bovary

MADAME BOVARY (2015)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sophie Barthes

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall-Green, Paul Giamatti, Laura Carmichael

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 6/12/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 11, 2015

Is Emma Bovary a tragic heroine? That depends on the context of the term. There's the dramatic sense, in which a character's downfall is the result of some fatal flaw in the character's personality. Don't forget that even Shakespeare's version of Richard III is a tragic hero, and he kills or orchestrates the murders of anyone whom he believes could stand in his way. In that regard, Madame Bovary, whose actions don't directly result in the death of anyone other than herself, is certainly a tragic heroine. It's her unreasonable desire for romance and her ambition to vault into the good life of fine clothing and fancy adornments that lead to her ruin. Unfortunately, Madame Bovary, the latest adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's classic novel, has the more traditional meaning of the word "tragic" at the front of its mind.

That meaning, of course, is the idea that we feel bad about the result—that it is unfortunate, sad, difficult to process, or other feelings along those lines. A tragic hero's story doesn't have to be tragic in that sense of the word. We don't feel bad for Richard III at the end of the play, and that's because the notion of just deserts is also a cathartic one—that a disreputable person has earned his or her comeuppance, that order has been restored, that things are as they should be in the universe.

Emma Bovary, again, isn't some kind of monster, but there's little reason to feel bad for her by her end. She has brought this upon herself and, in the process, has ruined the lives of others, too.

Felipe Marino and director Sophie Barthes' screenplay conveniently reduces the impact this Madame Bovary's (Mia Wasikowska) actions have on others. She is not a mother here. The movie stays with her point of view the entire way (ignoring how Flaubert shifts to Emma from her husband and returns to him to observe the fallout). It ends—and, actually, begins—when she comes to her end.

The focus, then, makes it not a story of a character who does herself in on account of her impossible-to-meet standards. It becomes the story of a character who is undone by circumstances. If only one of her lovers had returned her affections, she could have been happy. If only her lovers—or even one of them—had helped to pay her debts instead of showing themselves to be "evil" men, things could have been different. If only the salesman who convinced her to buy so many things on credit had just given her and her husband an extension on paying off the debt, the story wouldn't have to end the way it does.

A shift in focus and even theme is fine. A movie adaptation is not the book upon which it is based, and it has no obligation to remain faithful to its source material. Yes, this version might get it "wrong," but that doesn't mean it is intrinsically wrong in doing something different with the material. Flaubert may have been criticizing Emma Bovary for her attitudes, but that doesn't mean a filmmaker can't find something sympathetic about the character. A movie adaptation doesn't even necessarily need a reason to change things. The justification can simply be in the end result.

The end result here is simply a broad interpretation of the story with an unfocused view on the eponymous character. Part of that is the writing, but equal weight belongs to the performance. Wasikowska, who is usually a fine actress, seems uncomfortable here. Her Emma alters drastically in the gentle breezes of the plot. There are moments of naïve fragility that seem to fit Barthes' purpose, and then there are the moments of cold-hearted anger, which Wasikowska plays in the vein of a spoiled child. It's an intriguing concept for the performance if one takes the book into context, but it's a detriment to this version, which wants us to see Emma in a more sympathetic light.

The story follows the convent-raised Emma in her (in this adaptation) rushed and arranged marriage to Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a country doctor with no greater ambition than to live out his life as a doctor in the country. With no knowledge of the ways of society outside of the convent, Emma becomes disillusioned with this simple life and finds temptation in a trio of men: the young legal clerk Leon Dupris (Ezra Miller), a rugged marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), and the predatory Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), a local shop owner who expands and improves her wardrobe and household decorations. Emma has affairs with the first two men and gets into debt with the third. None of it turns out well.

This Madame Bovary may challenge our conception of the character, but that's about all it challenges. It's a wholly traditional approach (with the pretty landscapes and sumptuous costumes and art direction vying for our attention) to material that was anything but traditional. The effort is intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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