Review

'Madame Bovary' lovely but as constrained as Flaubert's heroine

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
The latest attempt at 'Madame Bovary' is lovely, but it's so severe it's hard to get excited about it

It may be, as the proverb states, that inside every fat person there is a thin one trying to get out, but it is likely not true that inside every great novel there is a fine film struggling to be made. A case in point, and not for the first time, is "Madame Bovary."

Numerous filmmakers, including such titans as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli and Claude Chabrol, have taken a crack at Gustave Flaubert's landmark 19th century novel without noticeable effect. Now it is Sophie Barthes' turn, and although her "Madame Bovary" is certainly well made, it is a hard film to work up any enthusiasm for.

Barthes, whose first feature was the very different Sundance item "Cold Souls," has taken great care with the physical look of her "Bovary."

Collaborating with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, production designer Benoit Barouh and costumers Christian Gasc & Valérie Ranchoux, she has created a convincing visual portrait of the dreary, dead end provincial France that proved to be feckless romantic Emma Bovary's undoing in Flaubert's 1857 novel.

Also doing well is star Mia Wasikowska, who previously gained 19th century novel adaptation experience by starring in 2011's "Jane Eyre." None of these factors, however, stops this "Madame Bovary" from being a noticeably glum production, even for a story that does not have a happy bone in its body.

Barthes, who also wrote the script with co-producer Felipe Marino, has chosen to truncate and focus the novel's trajectory. Her measured, distanced style brings a certain stiffness to the proceedings and makes us miss even more than usual the Emma Bovary interior monologue that makes the book so memorable.

Also, by emphasizing the genuinely constrained nature of the lives of women who were both strangled in corsets and drowning in petticoats, Barthes makes this already disturbing tale even more of a long drum roll to an inexorable doom. In fact, by choosing to open the film with a scene from late in the novel and then flashing back, Barthes makes sure no one gets the wrong idea about where this story is headed.

After that opening, "Bovary" shows us Emma's comparatively happy days being educated with other girls in a convent school, a refuge she leaves for a marriage arranged by her father. "Please let it be the right one," she prays about her husband as she leaves, but it is not to be.

That husband turns out to be country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), more good-hearted than he is in the novel but someone who doesn't understand Emma at all and neglects her for his job bleeding and leeching the village sick.

With nothing to do and only the housemaid Henriette (Laura Carmichael, "Downton Abbey's" Lady Edith come down in station) for company, Emma finds herself increasingly distraught. "The days bring nothing," she practically sobs. "Is this the will of God? Is my future just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end?"

The only diversions Emma can claim for her own turn out to be shopping and sex, both of which have problematic, not to say ruinous, consequences for her.

Under the unctuous tutelage of local merchant Monsieur Lhereux, Emma, who has a weakness for personal vanity, discovers the joys of conspicuous consumption. The versatile Rhys Ifans is so convincing in the storekeeper role he makes you feel the power of the forces pushing Emma to spend more than her husband can afford.

Ignored by that husband, Emma is all too vulnerable to attentions from men who do not have her best interests at heart. The rakish local aristocrat, the Marquis Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green), finds her attractive, as does a handsome young law clerk named Leon (Ezra Miller of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), who is described by a friend as "the last romantic in all of France."

Alas, that title fits Emma Bovary more than it does any of the men in her life, and in an ideal version of the novel, we would empathize deeply with her dilemma at the same time as we would cringe at the nature of the choices she makes. Sadly, this "Madame Bovary" makes that identification harder than it should be.

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'Madame Bovary'

MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles

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