Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel “Madame Bovary” is no stranger to the big screen, as the 1865 book (impressively enough, it was Flaubert’s debut novel) has been translated to film at least seven times over the decades, including a Jean Renoir-directed version from 1934 and a breathless, Isabelle Huppert-starring 1991 take from Claude Chabrol. But that didn’t stop filmmaker Sophie Barthes from wanting to make it her own.
For her version, Barthes abstained from trying to turn the story of a brutally unsatisfied woman — Madame Bovary herself — into an overly modern tale about shame and the consumption of material goods, instead relying on the strength of Flaubert’s original story. The result is a mostly faithful take on the novel, which sees Mia Wasikowska memorably taking up the role of Emma Bovary, a once-pious young woman in provincial France who grows weary of her life as the wife of doctor, ultimately seeking out more (and more) in the form of various lovers and a growing appetite for material goods (particularly sumptuous gowns, lovingly brought to the screen by costume designers Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux).
As is so often the case in stories like this, Emma’s end is a biting, painful and decidedly downbeat one.
Barthes counts Flaubert as one of her favorite writers, but that doesn’t mean that the willfully obtuse and endlessly intricate story of “Madame Bovary” was any easier for her to tackle from a filmmaking standpoint. In fact, it was the tangled nature of Flaubert’s story — and his leading lady — that attracted Barthes to the project.
“Emma is very enigmatic to me. You can read the novel at different times of your life and read it completely differently,” Barthes recently told Indiewire. “As you mature as a reader, the novel opens your eyes on different aspects on the human psyche.”
Much of that is owed to Flaubert’s prescient ability to tell stories that are not beholden to time or place, classic tales that stand as parables that simply never feel dated. “The themes in ‘Madame Bovary’ are indeed very modern, that’s the reason why the book is still relevant today and has not aged,” Barthes said. “Flaubert was a visionary. He foresaw the possible dangers of excessive capitalism. He had a very acute perception of human cruelty.”
The film’s heart, of course, is Madame Bovary herself, sensitively and subtly played in Barthes’ film by Wasikowska, herself no stranger to emotionally fraught period pieces. “I wasn’t sure Mia would want to do it after ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Albert Nobbs,’ but luckily she read the script and liked it,” Barthes said. Wasikowska sparked to the “enigmatic” character of Emma Bovary, who inspired in her a desire for adventure.
“Mia likes to take risks and is not afraid to play controversial unlikeable characters, that’s what I like so much about her,” Barthes said. “She is fearless.”
“I think she is complex. She can be monstrous but she is also vulnerable. She refuses the mediocrity and pettiness of her surroundings. The complexity of her character is that you can never fully understand her,” Barthes said.
“Mia is a very intuitive actress. She understood the subtlety of the character. I think Emma will remain an enigma.”
Earlier this year, Wasikowska shared a similar sentiment with Indiewire, telling us, “Emma Bovary is such a great anti-hero.”
“[Sophie Barthes and I] talked about not vilifying her, even though some of her actions are not particularly heroic. We just wanted to bring a level of understanding. We both found that we empathize with why she did the things she did.”
The complex elements of Emma’s personality — and of her myriad desires — are never overtly judged in the film, and Barthes herself continues to question her main character’s motivations: “Is she just permanently dissatisfied or is she just too sensitive for her century? She is guided by her desires and appetites to self destruction, but she also wants something more than the mediocre life she is assigned by a highly male dominated society.”
The rest of Barthes’ cast isn’t too shabby either, including her one-time “Cold Souls” star Paul Giamatti, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall-Green, Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Rhys Ifans, all starring as the various men in her life — husbands and lovers, pharmacists and dry goods dealers, everyone it seems, is out for Emma — who contribute to Emma’s downfall during the course of the film.
Focusing more tightly on Emma’s story was a large part of the appeal for Barthes and, alongside screenwriter Felipe Marino, Barthes surgically sliced down whole swathes of Flaubert’s original novel. Most notably, the pair did away with an introductory section in Flaubert’s novel that first introduces readers to Emma’s husband, Charles.
“It’s very difficult when you tackle a 500 page novel. Some choices have to be made,” Barthes said. “I collaborated with screenwriter Felipe Marino, who had already made some bold choice in his approach to the adaptation. I liked his approach, and we worked to try to make it contemporary thematically, but retain the authenticity of the period and the location.”
Part of the appeal of Barthes’ film is the attention she pays to the more seductive and sensual elements of Emma’s complicated romantic life, one that is often ruled by her physical desires. “Not everyone connected with that aspect of the film. I tried to put myself in Emma’s subjectivity and approach it from a female perspective,” Barthes said.
“What Emma is looking for, mainly, is to be seen by men, but they don’t really see her, she is objectified.”
Barthes, however, did see Emma, and the result is one of the finest takes on Flaubert’s master work, enigmatic or not.
“Madame Bovary” is available today on Blu-ray and DVD.