Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Premise: Based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert. Set in rural France in the mid-1800s, a young woman marries a country doctor. She soon tires of domesticity and looks for excitement in lovers and opulent accessories for her home.
What Works: There have been many film versions of Madame Bovary. Whenever filmmakers cover a story that has been told as many times as this one has, it is incumbent on the filmmakers to make this version distinct and it is especially important for the filmmakers to make the material relevant to the contemporary audience. The 2015 Madame Bovary stands out in a few ways. First, unlike many other versions, this take on Gustave Flaubert’s novel was not made for television and was therefore liberated from the standards and practices of a broadcast network or a basic cable channel. Because of that, this Madame Bovary is able to freely depict the title character’s sexuality. That aids the material considerably; period movies depicting stories of the nineteenth century tend to be stuffy and formal. This movie isn’t so stiff and the sexual scenes, although handled tastefully, concretize the title character’s desires. That’s indicative of another strength of this version of Madame Bovary. It has an appropriately earthy look. The settings look lived-in and the characters have a plainness that’s convincing. The ordinariness of the film’s design assists the major theme of this story. Madame Bovary is about a woman who is consumed by materialism. In that respect, this story is remarkably relevant for the contemporary age. Emma Bovary begins as a well-balanced and polite woman but she has an expectation that marriage will bring with it the excitement and passion that she has read about in romance novels. When she discovers that domestic life is not a thrill-a-minute she begins spending money on elaborate outfits and extravagant accessories for herself and the house. Critically, these extravagances are paid for by credit and her expenses eventually catch up with her. In that respect, Madame Bovary is a story about corruption by credit and that makes this film especially relevant for the Great Recession audience.
What Doesn’t: The 2015 version of Madame Bovary suffers from the way it stays on the surface of its story. This tale has a lot of potential that isn’t quite realized because of the stylistic decisions of the filmmakers. The movie is designed and shot in a straightforward manner. The mundanity of life is sort of the point but Emma Bovary’s tragedy is in the way she is trapped in the gulf between her expectations and her reality and how nineteenth century gender roles enforce the barriers of that trap. Those elements are evident in the movie but the character’s internal life is largely missing from this version. That may be partly due to the casting of Mia Wasikowska in the title role. Wasikowska does contemporary characters pretty well but in costume dramas like 2011’s Jane Eyre or the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland Wasikowska’s performances are flat and her characters don’t come across as complex, multidimensional people. In some ways that works here; the Emma Bovary of this version is a shallow woman who doesn’t understand why she isn’t living the life she feels was promised to her. Wasikowska captures the callousness, entitlement, and superficiality of the character but there’s a possibility for much deeper inner turmoil that’s not evident in this version of the story. The limited aim of the movie is especially apparent in the ending which is abrupt. The momentum of the story isn’t necessarily leading toward its conclusion and the superficial treatment of the material denies the character’s final disposition any sort of deeper meaning.
DVD extras: Trailers.
Bottom Line: The 2015 version of Madame Bovary is flawed but it makes for an interestingly contemporary take on the story. It’s worth a look by fans of the novel and of costume dramas and it’s a good example of reimagining an old text for today’s audience.
Episode: #570 (November 22, 2015)