There have been numerous adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, but none has quite captured its painful complexities or poetic beauty. Sophie Barthes has the distinction of being the first woman filmmaker to tackle Madame Bovary, but here, too, despite Andrij Parekh’s richly beautiful cinematography, we are left feeling about this film much as Emma (Mia Wasikowska) feels about her life: disappointed.
Raised to be an accomplished young lady, Emma is taught to draw, paint, play the piano, and pray. Mostly, though, she is raised to be married. And so she is, to country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a virtual stranger to Emma, or so we assume by her breathlessly repeated prayer, “Please let him be the right one.” How she defines “the right one” is unknown, even to Emma. It is not until she settles into her home in Yonville that she begins to realize that Charles, hard-working but unambitious, kind but inattentive, isn’t much of an answer to her prayer.
Feeling increasingly bored and trapped, she stares out windows and wanders dark hallways. She is repeatedly laced into and out of her clothes. She picks bugs out of her moldering wedding bouquet. The imagery is not subtle: this feminine domestic sphere is little more than a tomb, and she imagines herself buried alive.
Under these dismal circumstances, Emma soon falls under the influence of merchant and creditor Monsieur Lheureux (a delightfully smarmy Rhys Ifans), whose temptations of flattery, fashion, and furnishings she is unable to resist. Lheureux plays perfectly to Emma’s desire to believe she deserves more, so she makes her house and herself over (the 19th-century version of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have) and incurs a mountain of debt in doing so.
At first, Emma has aspirations for her husband as well. It seems incomprehensible to her that Charles could be satisfied with being a mere village doctor, so she pushes her dream of him becoming a prestigious doctor in the nearby city of Rouen. To that end, she supports the local pharmacist, Homais (Paul Giamatti, sadly underused here), who is eager for Charles to perform a dangerous operation on poor, club-footed Hippolyte (Luke Tittensor).
When this doesn’t turn out as she hopes, Emma lets go of the minimal moral restraint she has shown up to this point. Beautiful and sought after by the rich Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) and the youthful law student Leon (Ezra Miller), Emma throws herself into a series of affairs. Here Madame Bovary makes her emotional state too obvious: no longer pacing dim corridors, now she’s running through woods and fields or traveling to Rouen alone to meet with her lovers with little care for who sees her. These scenes recall her earlier self-description that she intended to “invent little sins” because she “wanted only emotion, not discipline.”
Any adaptation calls for choices regarding which elements of an original story to include and which to leave out. Purists might be disappointed at Madame Bovary‘s exclusion of some details and plot points (like Emma and Charles’ daughter or Homais’ reduced influence). However, a more puzzling omission is the cause of Emma’s discontentment. Barthes underlines the repressive societal expectations of women as causes for Emma’s self-destruction. It’s a legitimate perspective, but limited and very familiar, rehearsed in too many other adaptations of other 19th-century novels, from Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady and Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre, also with Wasikowska, to Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.
Flaubert, however, is quite clear that Emma’s unrealistic expectations are the unhappy by-product of the sentimental romance novels she favored. “Before marriage she thought herself in love,” he writes, “but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”
It’s curious that in our age of social media over-saturation, where “reality” is presented in the form of carefully wordsmithed profiles, status updates, and Photoshopped images all drawn from popular culture, Madame Bovary completely ignores the effects of the pop culture of the era that shapes Emma. Instead, Emma seems almost born bad. In an early flashback, we see her, reared and educated in a convent, perched on a stool plucking an apple from the high branch of a tree while her more ladylike schoolmates gather them from the ground. She’s another Eve figure, rebellious, destined to and limited by a fallen nature.
Indeed, Barthes’ Madame Bovary presents her as wholly unlikable and unsympathetic (even while it blames social structures for her misery) and is committed to that view until the very end, when it makes its most confusing departure from the novel. The opening moments of Madame Bovary show Emma distraught and hurtling toward her death, so it’s no spoiler to mention that here. But Barthes is just as guilty of romanticizing Emma’s escape, giving into the pretty and tidy death fantasy that Flaubert so graphically denied her. In doing so, Madame Bovary leaves Emma childish, without self-realization or insight into her delusions.