Madame Bovary

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There are many pleasures to be had in Sophie Barthes’ production of Madame Bovary, but the most astonishing is its very contemporary take on the difficulties of the hapless heroine. One leaves the cinema with a fresh perspective on the more subtle aspects of Flaubert’s novel, particularly the relationship between female subjugation and capitalism. While Flaubert’s book is openly critical of romanticism, the bourgeoisie of his period and their passion for their own conventions, Sophie Barthes’ film is more of a study of the advantages to those around Madame Bovary and the benefits they glean from her demise. The film has been criticized for its perspective, the primary argument that it is not true to Flaubert’s original, but rather than refusing Flaubert’s voice Barthes is clearly asking us to have a discussion around Madame Bovary and its themes that she suggests have contemporary parallels.

This stands in stark opposition to another period drama released around the same time, based on a popular novel that has equally been made into a film many times, Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which simply plays as true to Thomas Hardy’s original as it can. Seeing the two films side by side, one questions the making of the Vinterberg vehicle, particularly since Barthes’ take on Flaubert is filled with fresh and interesting perspective. Considering the great cost and abundance of films made today, it’s worth asking why we are watching a remake of a period drama that has been made many times before. Far From the Madding Crowd, while beautiful, can’t answer that question. Sophie Barthes’ Madame Bovary can – an astonishing feat in light of the exquisite 1991 Claude Chabrol version.

An immediate difference from the other productions is setting. Barthes creates a world where the rich and the poor live as neighbors so that each has an awareness of the other. Emma Bovary’s excesses stand out differently under these circumstances. She is not trying to blend in, or to climb a social ladder, rather she is trying to impress those around her with a wealth she obviously can’t afford. Her spending on credit becomes less about her aspirations and more about her seductions and attempts to transform a self-perceived ugliness from the outside in. Her education at the convent is referenced constantly, indeed the film opens with some beautiful shots of the school girls running up and down the stairs of the nunnery, indicating the holes in Emma’s soul do not come from romance novels or poetry, rather they come from an inadequate education that preferences love and marriage over accomplishment and self worth, even making a connection between religious ecstasy and passionate romance. Emma can’t stand to be alone with herself, and she uses her pretty clothes to try to attract interest. However, when seen through Barthes’ world, they are constantly repelling. As the film builds towards its terrible inevitability, Emma’s clothing becomes more and more lavish and ridiculous, properly making her into a clown.

Therefore, under Barthes direction, with the constantly fabulous Mia Wasikowska as the titular character, Emma Bovary becomes horrifyingly familiar. You can see many mini Emma Bovarys gathering in Westfield shopping centres, children in tow, obsessing over weight loss and the latest fashions while exaggerating the ephemeral flirtations of a barrister or her husband’s business partner. It was Marx who claimed it was lack of meaningful work that drives the masses to romanticise basic human functions such as eating and sex, and Sophie Barthes takes up this point in her manifestation of Madame Bovary. It is not romance novels or daydreams that kill Emma. It is the willful and manipulative withholding of powerful facts, alongside the inability to feed herself healthy new information, that kills her and sends her husband to the poor house. She is a woman given power without sufficient knowledge to control it, in order to make her easier to control: a very interesting take on the modern, post-feminist wife and mother.

One of the most interesting characters in the book is Monsieur Lheureux, here brought disturbingly to life by Rhys Ifans, who plays him like a modern day brand store manager waiting patiently for pay day. Familiar slogans about beauty and the importance of being happy slithering over the subtext of implied superiority grace his seductive conversations as he slowly swindles Emma out of her husband’s money before turning on her contemptuously when her folly rises to the surface. His disdain for her efforts to regain control match those of the retail assistant’s face when you try to return the Versace handbag purchased on a whim the day before. What was a prized jewel within twenty-four hours significantly loses value after purchase – much like Emma herself.

It is this constant referencing to the current day, combined with the starkly middle class setting that places great emphasis on Emma’s confinement (corsetry, housing, weather and simply having nothing to do all day) that lifts Madame Bovary from the beautiful manifesto on the perils of the romantic era and makes it a fascinating insight into the contemporary problems of the bored housewife. Over and over the message is repeated, it is not courage Emma lacks, it’s knowledge.

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