It is not a prerequisite that the period costume drama needs a hook, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Joe Wright’s stylish “Anna Karenina” dazzled with a theatrical approach, and Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” employed an austere commitment to form coupled with an expressively Malick-ian appreciation of nature. Gracefully pitched acting can also be enough (see James Gray’s “The Immigrant”), but unfortunately for Sophie Barthes, her adaptation of “Madame Bovary” is largely bereft of these qualities in any compelling form. Instead, the movie is delivered in a restrained, far-too-measured tone that is often flat and enervating.
There have been countless TV and film adaptations of “Madame Bovary.” In cinema, Vincente Minnelli, Albert Ray, Claude Chabrol, and Jean Renoir have all had a go at Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel, but rarely have the writer’s sensibilities been rendered for the screen by a female director. But feminist thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) isn’t really the issue with this film. Barthes’ problem with her debut, “Cold Souls,” was a brilliant concept enacted in a lackluster manner. “Madame Bovary” attempts to course-correct this error, but apart from methodically rendering a beatific French countryside milieu with precision, the movie cannot translate any captivating or moving spark. “Madame Bovary” follows the story pretty much to the letter, telling the tale of a disillusioned young woman bound by the constrictions of marriage and duty, but who yearns for much more. It’s a familiar premise, whether you have or haven’t read the book.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Bovary and Henry Lloyd-Hughes portrays her husband, an honorable but uninspired doctor who plays everything safe. Just when Madame Bovary has seemingly consented to her humdrum lot in life, a young suitor’s (Ezra Miller) romantic advances awaken her to the possibilities that her existence could be so much more. This is where the film’s problems arise. There’s a disconnect in Bovary’s existential languor and genuine unhappiness. The unfolding narrative intends for the audience to believe that the emptiness of provincial life in Normandy is oppressing the young girl, but she doesn’t appear to either be much of a dreamer or actively suffocating. Instead, it’s as if Bovary’s a mildly disenchanted child who’s discovered pastry after a life of potatoes. Sure, it’s hard to blame that girl, but her dissolute desire begets her own undoing in a frustratingly blind fashion.
A recent analogue would be “Jane Eyre,” Cary Fukunaga’s classical and post-modernly stylish adaptation of Charlotte Brontë, also co-starring Wasikowska. But that film’s gothic aesthetic, coupled with the fever-dream passion between Michael Fassbender and Wasikowska, made for a ravishing and haunting look at romance.
That kind of vital alchemy is sorely absent here and is arguably the film’s main weakness. A largely miscast movie, the usually strong Wasikowska feels off her game with no equal to volley against. The handsome, but slightly wooden Logan Marshall-Green is out of his depth in comparison, Ezra Miller’s lustful indie-rocker routine is out of place and doesn’t work, and Lloyd-Hughes is perhaps too perfect at being positively lifeless. Paul Giamatti adds a nice presence, but hardly has any scenes to play against the lead. As the manipulative merchant Monsieur Lheureux, Rhys Ifans chews up scenery, but at least his ostentatious performance adds much-needed vivacity. And none of these actors feel particularly connected to one another.
Every gesture seems to telegraph the obvious direction where the narrative is heading. The minute Miller gives Wasikowska’s Bovary even the slightest side-eye glance, she seems more than ready ditch her vows, and the drifting of her moral compass takes on a predictable turn. We do feel some compassion for her plight, seeing as the Madame’s husband is crushingly dull, but the character is often reduced to a pouty, petulant teenager by Wasikowska’s uneven performance. The crucial element of audience sympathy for her character doesn’t land, and tellingly, the young actress’ accent wanders too, at first arriving at the faux-English of most period pieces, and then vacillating into traces of American vocalisms. To be fair, accents are a hindrance across the board in the film.
A lack of sympathy for the protagonist grows when her restlessness manifests into a reckless taste for the finer things without concern for cost. Through the aid of Monsieur Lheureux, a conniving loan shark masquerading as an urbane businessman, Madame Bovary furnishes her house and wardrobe with the finest silks, cashmeres, and rugs. While Bovary’s husband can’t afford these items on his modest country doctor’s salary, the unctuous Lheureux is more than happy to sell all the items to her on credit. And then when The Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) catches her eye, Bovary again is turned on to the possibility of a sensuousness that has eluded her.
And pro tip: if you’re going to begin your movie with the death of your protagonist, you really must combat eventuality and make your audience care. But “Madame Bovary” puzzlingly shows all its cards right at the beginning of the movie — including a foreboding air of doom — and then makes its slow, wandering descent to its ultimate tragic conclusion without revelation. What’s meant to be a bold opening choice doesn’t illuminate the narrative at all.
“Madame Bovary” is exquisitely crafted and its aesthetics nonpareil, but the movie’s emotional intelligence is perhaps too minute for its own good. The early drabness of the movie, meant to subconsciously convey Bovary’s discontent, instead becomes oppressive and dreary. Modernity and authenticity occasionally mingle: Andrij Pareskh’s naturalistic, hand-held, and beautifully low-lit crepuscular photography lends the movie a faintly contemporary air, and the attention to period detail is admirably meticulous. But by and large, Barthe’s ‘Bovary’ is so consumed with communicating a cold dissatisfaction it leaves audiences wanting for a communicative warmth.
Barthe’s attempt at 19th century self-discipline and delicacy is appreciated, but the effort towards exploring minute emotion comes at the price of muted feeling and engagement. “Madame Bovary” is an attractively crafted movie that tries to insinuate disillusionment in every shot and frame, but in doing so, the movie feels precise and calculated, misplacing a vitality that it desperately needs. An uninspired narrative and disengaged performances ultimately keep persuasive deep feeling and captivation at a far distance. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Telluride Film Festival.