Why you should care
Because you slept through that semester of English class. Oh, we saw you.
There have been many interpretations of Madame Bovary, some more literal than others. French filmmaker Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls aka The Unbearable Lightness of Being Paul Giamatti) has the surprising distinction of being the first woman to direct an adaptation of Flaubert’s 1856 novel, her take on the material having been preceded by no fewer than 10 prior iterations on screens both big and small. There are even traces of Emma in nearly every prestige-television wife, from Carmela Soprano to Betty Draper, which would appear to run the risk of making Barthes’ endeavor feel old hat.
Luckily that isn’t the case. This Bovary delights in its 19th-century environs, emphasizing the atmospheric beauty and oppressiveness of France in equal measure. It’s a nice place to admire from the other side of a screen, but you wouldn’t want to live there — at least not the way Emma does. A farmer’s daughter, she’s married off to a physician in what both she and her father hope to be a life-changing union. It does prove to be that, just not in the way she’d hoped.
Mia Wasikowska’s knack for bringing misunderstood heroines from page to screen is complemented by ravishing aesthetics.
Emma is in a hostile world that rarely allows her to speak freely and gives her little more to do than wander the empty, cavernous halls of her house while her country-doctor husband is at work. She wonders whether the dreary sameness of marital life is all she has to look forward to, a condition worsened by a priest who subtly scolds her for daring to be unhappy when she has bread on the table and a fire in the hearth. Hers is the sadness of one who would appear to have everything she could ever want but who couldn’t be more miserable. “Life is a disappointment,” she says plainly.
It thus comes as little surprise when Emma is wooed by a legal clerk with a romantic streak, an obvious foil for her passionless, utterly conventional husband. Emma daydreams about Paris, which her suitor assures her is even more wonderful than she’s imagined it to be. She’s driven into his arms and, after he leaves for another town, those of another man; both lovers eventually push her away.
It isn’t entirely a coincidence that this is the most involving film of its kind since 2011’s Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska stars in both literary adaptations, and her knack for bringing misunderstood heroines from page to screen is complemented by ravishing aesthetics in both cases. It always seems to be overcast in Madame Bovary, but the gray skies just make the grass that much greener, the glowing torches lighting the way at night that much brighter.
This is cold comfort for Emma, who becomes more untethered mentally as the realities of everyday life box her in. Barthes takes the scenic route in charting her protagonist’s unraveling, a slow descent into hopelessness that’s both lovely to observe and difficult to watch.