New “Madame Bovary” movie won’t replace your Cliffs Notes

New “Madame Bovary” movie won’t replace your Cliffs Notes

The new Madame Bovary feels like a film made to disprove the aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words. The approximately 170,000 pictures that constitute Sophie Barthes’s film are worth far less than the 115,000 words of Flaubert’s novel: we watch these characters go through their bleak paces, but learn very little about what, if anything, is going on inside their tightly-tamped minds.

Conveniently for those of us who might be concerned about revealing spoilers, Barthes—who co-wrote the screenplay with Rose Barreneche—begins the film by having the eponymous lady run onscreen, clutching her side, and promptly fall to the forest floor, dead. You might be tempted to get up and leave at that point, and I won’t be the one to tell you not to.

We flash back to the education of Emma Bovary, née Rouault, as played by Mia Wasikowska. The actress looks so well-suited to roles inspired by classic literature that filmmakers seem to think they can cast her and call it a day: she’s previously starred in Great Books clunkers including Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, and Stoker. In Madame Bovary she starts out in a convent school, which we know never ends well for characters who don’t have the benefit of vocabulary coach John Malkovich to lubricate their release.

Rather than the Vicomte de Valmont, it’s a competent but boring country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) who’s waiting to wed this convent-fresh girl. “It’s all part of nature,” he assures his bride as he deflowers her with markedly less enthusiasm than the average Shih Tzu musters for its favorite pillow. Clearly the situation calls for extramarital affairs, which proceed just as you’d expect—except for their notable lack of erotic heat. A fleeting nip slip secures the R rating for this movie, which otherwise is more chaste than an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, with quick cuts from first base to post-coital empty promises.

The central relationship in this Bovary is not between Emma and her husband Charles but between the young wife and the glorified door-to-door salesman (Rhys Ifans) who tempts her into buying a houseful of luxury goods on credit. It’s here that the film really begins to show the strains of Barthes’s minimalist approach: it’s left entirely unclear why, exactly, Emma decides to go whole-hog on draperies and dresses. Is it because she longs for a more urbane existence? Is it a way of lashing out at Charles (who inexplicably allows his wife to continue her spending spree even when it’s instantly clear that she’s accumulating unsustainable debts)? Is it just because she’s bored? I’ll bet Flaubert could tell you, but I sure can’t.

Another odd episode involves the village pharmacist, played by Paul Giamatti with a wicked glee that promises vast depravity. He tries to convince Emma to help him talk her husband into operating on an urchin with a club foot, and whether she intervenes or not (Barthes declines to enlighten us), Chuck goes ahead with it, seemingly in hopes of becoming the world-famous humble little country doctor that his wife wants him to be. That goes about as well as you’d expect, and then Giamatti recedes into the background, never again to be allowed to enliven Emma’s tedious march towards her inevitable demise.

Madame Bovary is shot so tastefully, it hardly exists. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh helps Barthes ensure that the French countryside is perpetually overcast, lest there be any threat of us misunderstanding the film’s thesis that being forced to marry a boring country doctor in 19th century France pretty much sucked. Unless you’re an English teacher looking for something that you and your students can snooze to for a couple of hours without the principal’s censure, there’s no reason to bother with this Bovary.

Jay Gabler