Madame Bovary
Produced by A Company Filmproduktions gesellschaft
Screenplay by Felipe Marino and Sophie Barthes from Gustave Flaubert’s novel
Directed by Sophie Barthes
Distributed by Alchemy and Millennium Entertainment 

Gustave Flaubert was the satirist of dissatisfaction.  His principal theme was the ruinous nature of unrealizable dreams, a malady he treated with cold contempt in his 1857 novel Madame Bovary.  His plot centers on Emma, a farmer’s daughter who refuses to be satisfied with the love and possessions available to her in the sticks.  Influenced by the romance novels of her day, Emma has been doomed always to want more—much more.  As a consequence, she loses everything.  Flaubert portrays Emma with the detachment of a disinterested clinician and succeeds in turning her into an object of ridicule.  There are those, of course, who will disagree with this judgment.  The sentimental feel she’s a romantic heroine, while the political demand she be understood as an early and therefore abused feminist.  Filmmakers have sided with the latter two judgments.

There have been several movies made of Madame Bovary.  I’ve seen only two, Vincent Minelli’s 1949 adaptation, and the most recent, directed by Sophie Barthes and released in June.  Neither of these films nor, from what I have read, any of the others registers Flaubert’s satiric estimate of Emma and her fellow characters.  I imagine filmmakers were attracted to the subject of adultery flaunted in the novel but concluded Flaubert’s attitude with respect to illicit dalliance to be inimical to box-office receipts.  Movies, of course, have traditionally been the realm of warm and (preferably) fuzzy romance; it seems satire’s chilly objectivity has been routinely judged incompatible with heroically screen-sized actors.  So, like earlier adaptations, Barthes’s film lacks the merciless mood with which Flaubert invested nearly every page of his troublesome novel and thereby sacrifices its dark, sinister humor.

Flaubert wrote his story to expose the banality of middle-class life in Normandy, but that was just the beginning.  His contempt for the human race was vaster than could be compassed within any one class.  His principal target was foolishness inspired by self-adulation, an affliction unrestrained by class boundaries.

Emma’s novel-reading has inspired her with grandiose ideas about herself.  Still, she’s obedient to her father’s choice of a husband.  Emma (Mia Wasikowska) marries Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a simple country doctor lacking both imagination and ambition.  Charles is a decent man who loves Emma dearly, but his devotion is not enough.  She becomes disgusted by his lack of heroic aspirations.  In short, she finds him to be as bovine as his name suggests.  Soon she’s complaining to her astonished maid, “Is my future just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end?”  The answer is yes—unless, of course, she can summon the ingenuity and courage to open the door for herself.  But Emma can’t.  She lives in daydreams, always expecting something magnificent is coming toward her, but what it is she doesn’t know.  So, not knowing what else to do, she willingly allows herself to succumb to seduction in the dark corridor.

On the page, Flaubert used the trick of the incidental detail to undercut Emma’s dreams.  It’s almost as though he anticipated film editing.  Again and again, he picks out visual details in the narrative’s surrounding scenes and renders them in verbal close-ups for their suggestive power.  Consider this scene from the novel.  While at a village fair staged to display local produce and livestock, Emma flirts with the heartless Rodolphe, a local aristocrat dedicated to womanizing.  This rake sees through the dreamer instantly and quickly engages her in conversation on the topics of romance and self-fulfillment.  “There are two moralities, the petty one, the conventional one, invented by man,” he philosophizes, “and the eternal one [that’s] all around us and above us . . . like the blue sky that gives us light.”  At this very moment, the narrator thrusts a seemingly irrelevant detail at us.  He reports that a local official who has been fulsomely touting the village’s agricultural efforts wipes his mouth with his handkerchief.  The detail of the handkerchief is not, however, incidental at all.  It serves as visual analog to Rodolphe salivating over Emma.  Then, as things begin to heat up between the soon-to-be lovers, the narrator cuts to a close-up of two pigs nuzzling on a manure pile.  Not subtle, but effective enough.  Barthes doesn’t use either detail, settling instead for a cow crowding into the frame between Emma and the Marquis Andervilliers (Barthes’s and co-adapter Felipe Marino’s composite character, which includes Rodolphe).  We are left to infer the dirt and smell the creature introduces, but this is not nearly as impressive as Flaubert’s literary close-ups.

Because Emma is never content, she’s ripe for exploitation.  The Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) uses her longing for ever more intense experience to seduce her and then lead her to embrace what Flaubert calls, without graphic specification, debauched sexual activities.  (While Miss Wasikowska doesn’t enact these excesses, she has been prevailed upon to expose her upper torso in a couple of scenes.  Obviously Barthes didn’t trust our powers of inference.  I, for one, would never have guessed what Emma and the Marquis were doing when alone.)

Paralleling Emma’s descent into romantic corruption is her growing taste for luxuries.  And here comes Monsieur L’heureux (a wonderfully unctuous Rhys Ifans), the smarmy shopkeeper whose name means “happiness,” ironically enough.  Like the Marquis he has Emma’s number and cashes in on her insatiable need for more.  He plies her with silk dresses, damask curtains, and oriental rugs, extending her credit lavishly until she is in ruinous debt.

Barthes tries to express Emma’s foolish lack of restraint by repeatedly filming Wasikowska running through the woods to and from her lover’s home.  In these scenes, Wasikowska looks consumed with either eagerness or fear, depending on which way she’s headed.  They work quite well to visualize Emma’s girlish recklessness.  In them also, we can’t help noticing why Barthes cast Wasikowska.  While attractive enough, she is far from being a glamorous beauty.  She’s doesn’t even live up to Flaubert’s description of his character.  This makes sense.  Emma should be understood to be an ordinary young woman led astray by her longings.

In addition to the Rodolphe/Marquis character, Barthes and Marino have shortchanged other elements of the novel.  They have eliminated Emma’s daughter altogether—an unfortunate omission, since the little girl makes unmistakable the depth of Emma’s betrayal.  (So unmistakable, in fact, that a number of feminist critics of the novel have been at pains to twist Flaubert’s meaning, arguing that we’re to understand Emma’s motherhood to be just one more instance of female oppression.  It seems that, like Emma, some feminists despise reality.)

Then there’s the episode in which Charles bungles an operation meant to cure Hyppolyte, a village hostler, of his clubfoot.  The failed procedure brings to the fore Homais (Paul Giamatti), the pompous, self-aggrandizing apothecary and disciple of scientific progress.  He enlists Emma in his campaign to get Charles to undertake a surgery on Hyppolyte for which Charles is neither trained nor experienced.  The results couldn’t be worse.  Hyppolyte’s malformed leg had been serving him quite well.  In the novel, Emma observes that his afflicted limb seems to have been compensated by the growth of moral qualities, especially those of endurance and strength, so agile and quick was the young man in performing his duties.  But this won’t do for Homais.  He insists Charles cure Hyppolyte.  In the event, the operation only succeeds in turning the leg gangrenous, necessitating its amputation.  Flaubert uses this episode as a perfect instance of what happens when mortal limitations are ignored in favor of dreams of progress and its promised perfections.  (Those who have been fortunate enough to have had joints or bones successfully repaired or replaced, as I have, may want to argue this point.  The hostler’s misfortune could be said to be a step toward our 21st-century benefit.  No pain, no gain?)  Hyppolyte’s gangrene also presages the horrid end Emma will suffer as a result of her own attempt to transcend human limitation.

This is Flaubert’s cruelest touch.  As Emma’s fortunes fall and she’s about to be exposed fully, she decides upon suicide to escape her disgrace.  It’s the extreme romantic’s inevitable recourse.  Arsenic, she reasons, will effect an easy release.  It does kill her, of course, but there’s nothing easy about it in the novel.  She’s subjected to some extremely unromantic blistering, convulsions, and vomiting, not to mention agonizing pain.  Here the film misses an opportunity.  Instead of Emma’s deathbed agony, Barthes elects to show us Miss Wasikowska running through the woods once more, this time clutching her side above her left hip.  In fact, Barthes likes this scene so much she opens and closes her film with it.  I suppose she wanted to indicate that Emma was fated from her life’s beginning.  Fine with me.  Most of us are.  (By the way, Miss Wasikowska looks as though her running had given her what used to be called a stitch.  Given the amount of jogging she had to do in the film, maybe it did.)  Anyway, she quietly descends upon the pine-needle path and passes prettily away.  No blisters, no convulsions, no vomit.  Though a trifle early, it seems a consummation devoutly to be wished.

In the novel, after Emma’s suicide, Charles declines and soon dies.  The Bovary daughter winds up in the care of an aunt who puts her to work in a cotton mill, which at the time was likely to lead to lung disease.  By cutting the child from the film, Barthes scotches this last grim fillip to a truly painful tale.

Is it too much to expect a film to stoop to this degree of satiric cruelty?

No, that’s not the right question.  Better to ask this: Why turn Madame Bovary into a film, even one as well made as this, if in the process you’re going to romanticize the narrative and thereby vitiate Flaubert’s intentions?