Movie Review: ‘Madame Bovary’
While the current global obsession with wealth and celebrity has turned the idea of living beyond one’s means into an art form, dreaming of the finer life is hardly something new. In fact, long before the Kardashians or Real Housewives built empires based upon conspicuous consumption, Emma Bovary made it her mission to keep up with The Joneses, sacrificing literally everything in pursuit of the good life.
Perhaps that’s why few literary characters have elicited the same level of devotion and vitriol as the titular doomed heroine in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 masterpiece. A universally lauded classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into nearly every language, and adapted several times for both the large and small screens (most notably a 1949 theatrical version directed by Vincente Minelli). But it’s French writer director, Sophie Barthes, who offers up the latest cinematic interpretation, recruiting Australian wunderkind, Mia Wasikowska for a gorgeous if staid retelling of Flaubert’s novel.
In case you weren’t paying attention in your college lit class, Emma Rouault (Wasikowska) is just your typical French country maiden living on the farm with her widowed father when she meets the kind-hearted if shy and slightly inept doctor, Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Unlike most of her peers however, she has been fairly well educated at a nearby convent, where her piety proved no match for a budding love of literature—particularly the exotic peoples and lands depicted in her favorite stories.
This presents a problem when Emma’s rampant imagination collides head first with the decidedly unglamorous reality of life as a rural wife, far away from even the French cultural epicenters of Paris or Rouen. Thus she finds ways to vent her frustrations, most notably overspending on home furnishings and décor items procured for her by a stylish if crafty merchant, Monseiur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans) and then beginning two intense love affairs, one with the wealthy cad, Rodolphe Boulanger (Logan Marshall-Green) and another with her good friend and fellow art aficionado, the law clerk, Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller).
Spoiler alert, nothing works out quite the way she hopes it will, but it’s not necessarily the facts of Emma’s life that have made her such an indelible character. Instead it’s her relentless and very contemporary pursuit of happiness. Easily one of the first protagonists of the modern literary era, her choices – whether viewed as necessary or selfish – are entirely her own. Sure she must contend with the same gaping gender double standard that still exists today, but by playing outside these ingrained societal conventions she inadvertently upends them.
Unfortunately, it’s for that exact reason that Mia Wasikowska is entirely miscast. A fine actress who knows her way around a competent literary remake (see 2011’s Jane Eyre), Wasikowska excels at embodying period-accurate restraint and unrequited affection – her angular beauty and old world mannerisms perfect for the Brit Lit classics of the Bronte Sisters and Jane Austin. But when it comes to embodying the sensual, dreamy, utterly French Madame Bovary she simply falls flat. As does the equally talented Ezra Miller whose onscreen relationship with the actress plays more like brother-sister than that of lust-filled paramours. Otherwise, the film is pleasant enough- with top-notch contributions from cinematographer, Andrij Parekh and costume designers, Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux.
Sophie Barthes’ Madame Bovary offers up a stylish and skilled retelling of one of the greatest stories in all of literature. If only it captured the novel’s dreamy optimism, or more importantly, it’s unbridled erotic heat.
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