As it happens, I had just read Madame Bovary for the third time just before this film came out, so I was eager to see it with the novel fresh in my mind, despite the fact that there has never been a successful adaptation of this deeply psychological, delicately balanced classic, and this one was rumored to be yet another miss. One big talking point [given that there is nothing else of distinction about it] is that this is written and directed by a woman, which is supposed to give it some “female psychology” authenticity, although the novel was written by a man. It also stars Mia Wasikowska, who has quietly become one of the most interesting actors working today. So how is it? It’s pretty and atmospheric, but it distorts the story to the point that you have to wonder why the filmmaker wanted to make this at all, if she’s so set about ruining what it is?
We open with Emma Bovary wandering through the forest before collapsing, bottle of poison in her hand. So already we know: This film fucks up the ending. We then flash back to her years in a convent, which raise hopes for the film, as they’re filled with images of Emma trying and failing to conform to the strict exercises in becoming proper, pious young ladies. She leaves and boom, next scene is marrying Charles Bovary, whispering “Please God, let him be the right one!” So… is this some arranged marriage? Seems like it. We’ve dropped Charles' first marriage from the novel, as well as their courtship. She goes straight to Yonville, dropping the first town they lived in, from which Yonville was a step up. She is mopey and depressed from the start, appalled at her plain home and the tiny town. There are a few gestures toward showing Charles as a dull person, but crucially missing is that Emma makes no attempt to be happy and content with her marriage, as she bravely does in the novel, but is a miserable, unhappy whiner from the start.
The movie makes the curious choice to downplay pompous pharmacist Homais to virtually no role in the story, while promoting merchant Lheureux to a much more dominant position. He shows up the very day Emma arrives in town, trying to sell her fine home wares and dresses, telling her she can buy it all on credit. As Emma’s unhappiness has no real focus—gone are the romance novels she incessantly read, with their unrealistic versions of romantic happiness, gone is her psychology which cannot be satisfied with the daily and ordinary—her becoming obsessed with fine dresses and housewares comes off as a diagnosis that she is simply a shopaholic. The dresses she bought, in the novel, are intricately tied into the affairs she has, and her wish to impress her men, as well as live the romantic life she believes she deserves, they are never wanted for themselves. With all of her psychology and wishes dampened, she becomes addicted to the dresses for themselves, and this infinitely rich character becomes a Jerry Springer-level shopaholic.
Oh, but what of her affairs? You know, the main action of the novel? They barely register. She has an initial flirtation with Leon, played by Ezra Miller, who looks like the face of a young Alan Rickman emerging from within a hairy vagina. It’s the sort of thing where you think: “Maybe women find that attractive? Is that possible?” Watching the film, one would be in the dark about the effect this flirtation has on Emma. She then takes up with Rodolphe, who is suitably virile, but treats her with outward contempt in the film, far different from the seductive smooth operator we have in the novel. That they are meeting secretly, that they are enjoying a great passion, that Emma is becoming reckless, that she is pushing a love that he doesn’t feel; none of this comes through. The end of this affair happens, but with none of the force it had in the novel. She then takes up with Leon, but it’s the same thing: we get no sense of their personal relations. One of the things about the novel, and what made it so bracingly modern for the day [to the point that it was banned for indecency] is that Emma takes a look at her marriage and realizes it sucks ass, so she goes out and has some pretty great sex. Say whatever you want about the book, but you can’t deny the passionate nature of these affairs. So here we’re going to downplay that in favor of making her addicted to shopping?
By the way, if you’re looking for the most infamous carriage ride in literature, well, this movie is not the place. We see them get in the carriage—that’s it. Other notable absences that were huge aspects of the novel: Emma’s child. Her mother-in-law. The town’s provinciality. Homais’ close place in the Bovary household. The famous operation on Hippolyte’s clubfoot does occur, but why even have it if you’re going to omit the consequences? Gone also is all of the considerable humor of the novel, and completely perverted is the ending, which [in the novel] goes on long after Emma’s death. Here, she dies alone and without resonance in the forest, and the last shot is a puzzling one, of townspeople fanning across a field in search of her. With all of these strange choices, the main interest of the film is in puzzling over why the director would make them.
It seems that the film is trying to reduce the novel to a very shallow feminist reading, demonstrated by numerous shots of Emma being laced into several confining corsets and suchlike at the beginning, and a few lines here and there about how she doesn’t have the same privileges men have. I guess? But even that reading is not consistent. The main thread is Lheureux, the merchant, and how Emma feels “betrayed” when he expects her to pay for the things she bought on credit. She then runs to the men she had affairs with, and finds they can’t, or won’t, help her. But without us having a sense of how Emma has misjudged these affairs from the start—it is obvious to the reader that these men have no fidelity to her—we don’t even have the sympathy of that understanding, and she just comes off as petulant and delusional when she’s aghast that they won’t give her money. She has a “men are evil” speech near the end, but the film has demonstrated no evil from men [except for Lheureux], making Emma just seem sheltered and a bit crazy, instead of delivering any sort of feminist statement. With the full context of the novel, in which she thinks that she spent all of this money FOR THEM, it makes a lot more sense that she would expect that they owe her something.
The movie this most reminds me of is Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, another in which a director adapted a novel, only to strip out everything that makes it what it is, to the point where it raises questions about why she would want to adapt it at all. If Sophie Barthes was attempting to offer a feminist revision of a novel written by a man, this also puts it in the company of Portrait of a Lady as two films that try—and fail—to make feminist a novel that is quite progressively feminist to begin with—and is already far more feminist than their films. Emma may not be 100% perfect—as we now require our feminist heroines to be—but she’s one of the first women in literature to effectively say that the whole “stand by your man” ethos is solid bullshit, recognize that her marriage really, honestly sucks with no silver lining about it, and to go out and seek the romantic and sexual satisfaction she wants. Sure, she pays a price, but it’s the price of going for it and getting what she wants.
The other serious mistake is that all of the characters in the novel make up a tightly-integrated ecosystem, with far more to say about humanity than might fall into the thin spectrum of “feminism,” and you can’t just pull out some of the characters—or a majority of them—and expect the thing to keep its shape. And so we end up with this, an atmospheric meditation on one depressed, chronically unhappy woman, who sought temporary solace in shopping and extramarital affairs. I shudder to think that anyone would watch this film instead of reading the novel, and it is all but impossible that anyone would want to read the novel after seeing this. Perhaps Bathes’ intention was to do her part to prevent anyone from wanting to read the novel? Regardless, that remains the most interesting thing about this film: wondering what the director’s intentions possibly could have been.
No. But if you haven’t read the novel, you know what you must do.