Editor’s Notes: Madame Bovary is currently out in limited release.
Madame Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska) suffers from depression. At least, we’re kinda pretty maybe sure about that. The 1856 novel (also named Madame Bovary) on which the film is based never really specifies, instead putting emphasis on her boredom with the daily life of a housewife, covertly implying what a psychological reading of the text might eventually uncover. After marrying small-town doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), general pursuits around the house begin to curtail her aspirations for a more adventurous life. In the film, this depression isn’t really built, but is rather presented as fact from one scene to the next, as mechanically as any other detail. And that’s just the start.
The story trods along from one element to the next, and there’s very little to savor.
As a bored newlywed, Emma begins to wander: she starts with her kitchen, then the yard, then the local importer, and finally to the beds of other men. Ironically, the reason the opening hour feels so oddly paced is because it’s so evenly stitched together, creating a literal map from one temptation to the next. After first turning away legal assistant Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller), Emma finds herself pursued by the Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), a wealthy nobleman, both introduced and whisked away with the alacrity of a beating drum. The story trods along from one element to the next, and there’s very little to savor.
Extramarital affairs are not so much the cause of Emma’s probable undoing, however. A local importer of goods Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), who plays the conniving salesman perfectly from his first introduction, begins to court not so much Emma herself, but her perceived wealth. As the wife of the town’s most notable doctor, Emma receives financial credit (as well as an education on what credit is, not unlike the terrible financial advice passed around today) with which she begins to adorn her husband’s humble stone residence.
Madame Bovary is a tale of despair, compounded by a brilliant score which unfortunately fades as the film goes on.
These two narratives don’t so much intermingle as they compete against one another. The camerawork, which is generally chest-level and distant giving a morose aura from the first frame, tips us that Madame Bovary is a tale of despair, compounded by a brilliant score which unfortunately fades as the film goes on. By the time the two pieces of Emma’s life (her affairs and her spending) actually converge, the film has lost most of whatever momentum it had. These two distractions from the fatigue of her boredom feel like additions to an empty life rather than multiplying factors with her depression, a miscalculation of atmosphere by the screenwriters who adapted the original novel.
This all a shame. The most integral part of this newest adaptation of the story, Madame Bovary herself, still couldn’t elevate the rest of the cast despite her best efforts. Wasikowska is a force on screen (as she’s proven time and again, recently with The Double, Only Lovers Left Alive, and even Maps to the Stars), completely outmatching Ezra Miller, who spends much of his time egregiously delivering egregious dialogue. The incoherent pacing of the first act, documenting Emma’s descent into despair, is perhaps only salvaged by Wasikowska’s affectional brand of acting, which brings some congruence to her interactions with her husband, her affairs, her shopping, and her other talents which are only briefly mentioned.
Madame Bovary isn’t a disaster, but instead is a collection of undercooked scribbles from the dog-eared pages of director Sophie Barthes’s copy of the original novel. Much of the story is cobbled together, and there’s some obvious craft behind the camera (credit cinematographer Andrij Parekh for doing all he can) which is hard to overlook. But besides another opportunity to see Mia Wasikowska in normal top form, little from the film will last until the next adaptation arrives.
Madame Bovary isn’t a disaster, but instead is a collection of undercooked scribbles from the dog-eared pages of director Sophie Barthes’s copy of the original novel.