Madame Bovary (1856), Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1865) and Thérèse Raquin (1867), three women from European literature whose authors Gustave Flaubert, Nikolai Leskov and Émile Zola offered potent reflections on the theme of entrapment. Emma Bovary, Katerina, and Thérèse are all burdened with unhappy marriages, yet unlike Emma’s existential crisis, Katerina’s story of murder propels her into a union with Zola’s eponymous protagonist. The adulterous lust of these two women is a natural segue to murder that comes to dominate their lives.
In Lady Macbeth (2016), the latest adaptation of Leskov’s novel, Florence Pugh plays the young bride Katherine, who succumbs to the inappropriate advances of groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) when her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) and father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) are called away on business. In spite of her expressed pleasure of taking in the outside air, she is forbidden from leaving the house and is even denied intimacy — her husband refusing to lay his hand upon her. Katherine and Sebastian’s torrid love affair takes on a self-preservationist instinct that compels Katherine to the act of murder to preserve her newfound freedom.
Of Thérèse Raquin Zola wrote, “I have sought to study temperaments and not characters.” At an inattentive glance, screenwriter Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is a character piece. Yet it follows in the footsteps of Zola as first and foremost a study of a similar inclination: the person governed by instinct that is often contextualised as animalistic in nature. This approach will inevitably touch upon the emotional, but also the psychological and philosophical.
The aesthetic of the film is glaring for its minimal presence of the cut — sequences of uninterrupted shots. If we consider Nicolas Roeg and cinematographer Anthony Richmond’s tenacious vision for the camera and edit in Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), to the use of the extrapolated long takes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), the approach of Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner creates an indelible impression of the extremes of cinema’s visual language. On the subject of temperament, it frames filmmaking as a process of balancing the temperaments of the visual aesthetic with those of the characters and the narrative.
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer said, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It’s a land one can never tire of exploring. There’s no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.” It’s worth considering Katherine in the light of these words, whose face possesses a sensitivity, a restraint of the outward expression of emotion. She remarks to Alexander early in the film: “I have a thick skin.” These words betray her calm exterior, casting our gaze inward where her inner vulnerability and sensitivity pulsates.
Katherine is a character animated from the inside, perhaps even imbuing her outer violence with a poetry by way of the calm tone of her voice, and acceptance towards self-preservation: pursue freedom or perish. With a striking beauty, the calm visual aesthetic compliments the instinctual emotions of the characters, which comes to mirror the human form.
Lady Macbeth is a puzzle that does not seek to simplify moral interpretation, but rather throw us into what initially seems an unfathomable moral quandary. It echoes Dreyer’s words, “You can’t simplify reality without understanding it first.” One of the essential emphasises in understanding this study of temperament is the concept of death and metamorphosis; the actual death versus the metaphorical death. But in the case of Lady Macbeth, it needs to be adjusted to consider the act of murder versus the metaphorical murder.
Katherine’s actions unquestionably brand her a culprit and yet she is simultaneously a victim of Alexander and Boris’ actions. Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Sebastian share a telling exchange that contextualises Katherine as a dog that has been tethered, her adulterous affair the release of pent up energy and desires. Willing to play the dutiful wife to Alexander, his neglect and the recriminations from her father-in-law, who accuses of her failing in her wifely duties, leaves her vulnerable to an opportunistic Sebastian. Their initial interactions are assuredly presented, a tension unspoken in which his cruelty almost mirrors the carnal within her that is aching to express itself, but which has been denied. Together they are consumed by the temperament of their lustful instincts and desires.
Katherine (Florence Pugh) and Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis)
It’s here that the film takes on a Jungian dimension, a commentary on the infiltration of the consciousness by the shadow, the purveyor of an individual’s propensity for the anti-social. Katherine is a victim not only of society but of human psychology, her metaphorical murder provoking a metamorphosis whereby she becomes capable of murderous and self-preservationist violence. While Katherine cannot be vindicated for her crimes, she represents a victim of patriarchal murder — subjugated as property of her husband.
Here, the literal versus the non-literal forms the context of the moral quandary laid out by Birch and Oldroyd in our response to Katherine. It challenges morality as an either or, thus requiring us to discover morality as not a simple judgement, rather a considered inquisition. The rigid social etiquette of 1865 stokes the fires of this visceral drama, illuminating the preposterous nature of rigid structures, whether they be social, philosophical or psychological. Such inflexibility is the attempt to simplify that which is complicated by nature.
The openness of Birch and Oldroyd to avoid authorial judgement illuminates the flaw of Zola’s celebrated work. In the preface, he writes, “I have selected personages sovereignly dominated by their nerves and their blood, destitute of free will, led at each act of their life by the fatalities of their flesh.” It’s an approach that has little flexibility, one in which Thérèse and her lover Laurent are the adulterous culprits, their guilt pre-determined. Recalling Dreyer’s words, Zola damns these two lovers to their temperaments.
Thérèse is ushered into a marriage to her cousin Camille by her strong-willed aunt, an act that suffocates the young woman. By ignoring and absolving the selfish motivations of Thérèse’s antagonists, Zola simplifies his moral drama, discounting the complexity by which his eponymous character’s adultery is in part a consequence of their selfish actions. Before first attempting to understand the moral labyrinth of individual versus collective responsibility, Zola makes the foolish error to make Thérèse and Laurent victims of his study of temperaments that becomes emblematic of authorial murder — the author selfishly denying the story its freedom to express a tale of moral complexity.
The words of Dreyer echo within the memory of Lady Macbeth, a film that provides no answers, only questions. A film of genuine force, it strikes you in the gut with a clenched fist, simultaneously seduced by its beauty while recoiling at the moral abyss.