Fairly-tale lore has been on the revisionist chopping block in recent years with mega-budget productions like Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, which not only strive for darker, seedier presentations of canonical worlds, but also apply a dollop of female empowerment where there previously was none. The latter tack comprises nearly the entire modus operandi of Sophie Barthes’s Madame Bovary, as Gustave Flaubert’s 19th-century über-classic, which possesses an ambiguous but mostly disdainful view of its titular character, is given a wholly empathetic sheen, where Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska) is shaped and molded by a patriarchal chokehold from the opening moments.
Barthes has shifted around bits and pieces of the narrative to make Emma the film’s sole focus; whereas the novel began with her husband, Charles (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), and gradually shifted perspectives, the film never leaves Emma’s stead, charting her every movement as she’s seduced and discarded by various men before committing suicide. Largely, Barthes’s choices intrigue more than impress, particularly because the film, which displays flashes of more elliptical dealings with time and memory, remains less a caustic (re)vision than a product tailored to satiate those with an appetite for pleasant Sunday matinees.
Barthes deliberately “spoils” Flaubert’s ending for newcomers by revealing it upfront, in a scene of Emma wandering aimlessly through the French countryside shortly before collapsing to her death. The decision strikingly prefaces Emma’s systematic degradation at the hands of several men, including her husband, law student Léon (Ezra Miller), a wealthy Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), and a merchant named Lheureux (Rhys Ifans). Yet Barthes is less interested in dutifully explicating these relationships than offering fragments of Emma’s time spent alone, whether in her bedroom or wandering around her home in Normandy. Such scenes are often complemented by a low-key piano score and without dialogue, as if in somber contemplation of Emma’s inevitable end. Whereas Flaubert emphasizes Emma’s irreversible passions and desires, Barthes finds a young woman for whom her surrounds have little use beyond a reverent, healthy appearance. When Emma pauses to study a Greek bust in her new home, Barthes’s implicitly likens Emma’s existential condition to Pinocchio, making the revision clear: Emma just wants to be a real woman—though, as she discovers, her environment has not yet conceived of such an identity.
Yet the film only sporadically delivers on this premise throughout, as Emma’s failings to attain autonomy are steadily expressed through literal dialogue, much of which has been tinged to suit more meager explications of deterministic forces, as when Emma woefully opines: “This was not meant to be.” Barthes’s keen sense of fragmentary psychologizing is too frequently juxtaposed with external validation via placid dramatic efforts, committing similar mistakes as Claude Chabrol’s 1991 update.
Barthes’s version forgoes the tapered histrionics of Chabrol’s adaptation, which is a welcome intervention for this new film’s sense of claustrophobic ideological constraints, though Wasikowska’s presence shrinks when stacked against Isabelle Huppert’s. Nevertheless, Barthes uses Wasikowska wisely by having her as more of a presence than an agent, furthered by the young actress’s contemporary sensibilities; she never quite fits into the period setting, with her voice almost slipping into American-sounding English at times. Then again, the entirety of the film is in English rather than French, making Wasikowska’s potential awkwardness less a unique displacement than a frustrating aesthetic decision that impacts performances of her male co-stars as well (Miller, too, seems adrift from the more fine-tuned, period specific efforts of Giamatti and Ifans).
If Madame Bovary finally has more in common with Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice than Roman Polanski’s Tess, it’s because Barthes neglects to thoroughly conceive of Emma’s plight, instead making only sporadic gestures to it. Not so with Polanski’s film; though critics and scholars often remark on Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” less examined is his looser triptych examining female imprisonment under hegemonic restraints. In Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and Tess, the heroines are killed, whether literally or symbolically, by the chauvinistic order then indubitably orchestrates their unraveling. In more recent terms, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights remains the gold standard for “unfilmable” literary adaptations, where philosophical orientation has been wholly woven into a revisionist, sensual undertaking.