TIFF REVIEW: ‘Madame Bovary’ Doesn’t Dig Much Deeper Under Shiny Surface

September 19, 2014 | Posted By In Film Festivals, Reviews | 8456 Views


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There have been plenty of film adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel “Madame Bovary,” but it is perhaps Sophie Barthes’ version that assigns the most sizable emphasis on the titular character. Based on the 1856 novel of the same name, “Madame Bovary” tells the tale of the disillusioned Emma Bovary (played by Mia Wasikowska) who attempts to elevate her social status by engaging in lavish spending and amorous secret affairs. As expected, this excessive lifestyle catches up with her forcing her to face the consequences, and face them, she does, in an inevitable downward spiral. As somewhat of a cautionary tale, narratives like this are usually riveting to watch in the same way celebrity tell-all biographies are addictive. “Madame Bovary,” however, doesn’t quite reach that level of enticement. Although the film carefully details Emma’s fall, ultimately it fails to garner sympathy for our protagonist. The film may be a visual treat with its spectacular scenery and its capability of projecting the appropriate atmosphere, but that isn’t enough to distract from the predictable, glazed-over narrative, which sadly resulted in somewhat of a disconnect.

Wasikowska isn’t any stranger from films that centrally feature a woman in conflict; from portraying the titular characters in films such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Jane Eyre” to supporting roles in contemporaries such as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Maps to the Stars,” she clearly possesses a range of ability spread throughout genres. So as the mid-19th century desperate housewife Emma Bovary, it should be a serious no-brainer. Perhaps that might’ve been the case had the film chose to focus on the characters, rather than the general story at hand. Although we see the reason why Emma finds herself in debt and disillusion with her life, we do not delve too deep into her character to know why she is this way. We only receive the bare basics: She’s bored. She’s not into her husband. She wants more out of life. But why? Why does her husband bore her? Why does she want fancy dresses and expensive carpets? Furthermore, why are the men in town captivated by her? There’s no reason to believe why her lovers would take her (except for youthful beauty?). There’s no reason to believe any of the characters would do anything, except for the fact that the plot is predictable (which isn’t the film’s fault — I mean, it’s a novel about a bored housewife — secret affairs and financial blackmail are a given).

It’s important to acknowledge that the acting wasn’t bad, in fact, for the most part, it was actually quite commendable, and there are a few performances worthy of mentioning. The character of Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), who is the village’s resident doctor and Emma’s husband, for example, inspires pity, even if in a pathetic way. Notably, however, the film removes pretty much his entire backstory including how he and Emma met, instead choosing to focus on the narrative of Emma, and not of Charles’ life. Admittedly, it makes sense to do so since the novel and film are called Madame Bovary, but if anything Charles actually made Emma more interesting. The exclusion of Charles’ backstory also removed how they actually did get along in the beginning. In the novel, Emma actually does fancy Charles, and vice versa, and she marries him thinking that her life with someone as wonderful and different as Charles is someone different from her town, which later mirrors her actions.

The remainder of the supporting cast include Rhys Ifans as Lhereux, the super creepy, but convincing sales dude who introduces Emma to the wonderful world of purchasing on credit, as well as Laura Carmichael who plays the maid (an amusing treat given that she’s most known for her portrayal as Lady Edith on “Downton Abbey.”) Then there’s Paul Giamatti as Charles’ advisor/friend Monsieur Homais who is pretty much just a friendly fellow villager, and Logan Marshall-Green as the rich and handsome Marquis who woos Emma into his bed, but then later casts her aside. The supporting cast do their job well—they support Emma and help move her story along. They’re great at providing the sneers, the cries, and creating an insurmountable bout of tension. But as an audience, it’s difficult to care as we aren’t given too much about these characters, and therefore their intentions are never entirely made clear.

It’s obvious the film wants its audience to feel sympathy for Emma, but it’s difficult to feel pity for a character who doesn’t offer something to root for. Emma aspires to live more than a simple country life, but why does she want this? Instead of focusing on that question, on who Emma is, the film opts to showcase borderline meaningless build-ups to secret rendezvouses and lovers quarrels in the form of screaming matches and sobfests. Probably the most prime example is the hunting scene, an inexplicable, yet stand-out bit that’s delivered in the form of a grand and somewhat graphic sporting event. While Charles attends the event as the doctor-on-duty, Emma joins the gentlemen on horseback to pursue a deer in the woods. A whole barrel of dramatic music and longing gazes are heavily employed in this scene, but it doesn’t quite seem to represent any of the themes of the film as Emma isn’t prey to be hunted, nor does she hunt (men or social standing or luxuries). She has her fair share of desires and indulgences, but she’s far from a lioness on the prowl. If the scene is supposed to represent The Marquis’ pursuit of her, then it still doesn’t necessarily correlate since their affair is swift and short-lived, nor does he really display any undying affection for Emma—just the typical seductive staring and fits of passion in their afternoon get-togethers.

The same can be said of Emma’s other lover, the young lawyer Leon (Ezra Miller). Like The Marquis, it’s not entirely clear what lies behind his affection, and unfortunately his character proved to be a distraction, rather than an addition to her descent. Maybe it’s the hair, maybe it’s the super pale skin, maybe it’s his lack of accent, but his character stuck out like a sore thumb. Don’t be misled, Miller does play his role well; innocent and eager, but it’s the modern air of his portrayal that’s the problem… and that leads to another issue in the film. As a period film, there should be consistency in the portrayal of characters, but instead they all seemed to be mushed together from different eras which makes for somewhat of a confusing experience. In turn, this may actually be where the main deterrent of the film, and also the issue of Emma Bovary’s mediocrity lies.

A minor character like Leon can be forgiven for seeming too modern. But the main character? Not really. It isn’t just the lack of sympathy felt for Emma, but rather the portrayal of Emma herself. A native of Australia, Wasikowska, like Miller, also plays her role featuring a Westernized accent (i.e. “no” accent), which seems absurd as other characters, regardless of where they are from speak with accents. (It’s also the same case with Giamatti.) This varying shift proved to be completely distracting as it takes the audience out of the scenes, unintentionally casting the characters from different regions—and eras. The real kicker here, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be a reason for the smorgasbord of accents, which in turn plagued certain bouts of dialogue in the film. Wasikowska’s lines in particular came across as almost too rehearsed, like a fresh-out-of-the-box Disney Channel actress attempting Shakespeare on stage. In a word: Forced.

The film houses a recipe for what should be a certain winning combination. In fact, the film’s first scene is beyond promising, expertly signaling the tragic tale that is to unfold for the remaining hour and fifty-five minutes of the film. Pre-title sequence, Emma is shown struggling through the forest, eventually falling victim to some restraining ailment, then finally lying down to die. This scene is immediately followed by a quick montage of Emma’s cheerful fun times in the convent before she’s sent off to marry. As the rest of the story runs its course, it’s not so much shocking as it is transparently flat. You know how it ends, but the characters don’t really move you enough to elicit excitement over the crucial moment that you know the film is leading up to. As a final effort, however, the film does end on an appropriate note. After watching Emma fall (this time knowing exactly what happened), the scene that follows includes her husband and the town desperately searching for her, unaware that she’s taken her own life. That scene alone is provoking in the same haunting way the opening scene initially is. Once again, it’s just the in-between, the non-growth of the characters, and the poorly developed dispositions that are troublesome.

Prior to the screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Barthes noted that her film’s version of Emma can be considered androgynous, i.e. she possesses characteristics that are both male and female. With that in mind, perhaps Barthes’ heroine attempts to be too much, and therefore comes across as too much of a cardboard cut-out. “Madame Bovary” does indeed succeed in focusing on the gripping tale of a woman’s attempt to rise and her eventual fall, but it ultimately failed to inspire why any of what she went through mattered.



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Lindsey prefers novels over films, but given that there are so many book-to-movie adaptations, these days she finds her eyes glued to the screen almost as much as the page. She majored in English and minored in Book/Media and Music History at the University of Toronto. Her favourite movie is Star Wars, but please don’t ask her about anything that isn’t the original trilogy as that is still a sensitive subject in her life. You can follow her on twitter @lindsey_allyson.