From now on, at least once a week, I'll publish an English translation of one of my old reviews. Let's see if I can get more visits with this ploy.
What makes a film a good adaptation of a literary work? An efficient translation of the author’s intentions into a cinematic form? A new exploration of the piece through the perspective of the film’s director, thus creating a film that is, more or less, a work independent of its literary roots? Or, perhaps, an accurate and complex representation of the psychology of characters such as the protagonist of Madame Bovary?
I don’t want to imprudently proclaim Sophie Barthes’ (The first woman to direct an adaptation of Madame Bovary) adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s most celebrated novel a good literary adaptation or a failed one, but I want to say that regarding all those parameters I’ve mentioned in the above paragraph, the film is a failure. But it fails in a fascinating way, not seeming to be at all concerned with achieving any of those things.
This is made possible, in part, by the screenplay which cuts quite a lot of important portions of the novel, like its ending, or the Bovary’s daughter. But the main thing that brings to such a view of the film is the way in which the film observes and portrays the central character of Emma Bovary.
In the hands of Barthes and her lead actress, the Australian Mia Wasikowska, Emma never stops existing in the film as a cypher for its audience. Emma seems to constantly be at a palpable distance from us, her motivations impenetrable both for the audience and, at certain moments, for the woman herself. There’s a moment, when Emma looks at herself in a mirror, which reminds one of such a scene in New York, New York. In that film, Martin Scorsese directed Liza Minnelli in such a way that in her unwavering stare there’s something vitreous and impenetrable, mysterious and unreachable by the audience. As in that moment in Scorsese’s musical, there’s a persistent aura of strangeness regarding the central character in Madame Bovary, as well as an apparent reluctance, from everyone involved, to interpret, explore, or resolve Emma Bovary.
Wasikowska’s work is essential for the success of such a distant and essentially superficial approach. It brings to mind her similar work in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, but while in that film there seemed to be an implied interior world and perspective never expressed externally by the character, in Bovary we have a character full of external actions and reactions whose interiority is a complete inaccessible. Many will, and have, looked at this as an unswerving flaw, but to me there’s something special that her portrayal injects in the film, separating it from many similar adaptations that spread their banality through the history of cinema like weeds pretending to be prestigious roses.
By denying such an exploration, visibility or even mere comprehension of Emma, the film never really falls in the usual downfalls of simplification or forced reinterpretation that torment other, much more famous and celebrated, adaptations of Flaubert’s opus. As I said before, this is helped by the textual choices and by Barthe’s approach, especially in what refers to the rest of the cast and the film’s visuals.
One of the more discussed choices, supposedly made by the director, is the way the entire cast employs deliberately disparate accents, avoiding, in most cases, the usual English accent that is so prevalent in period films independently of their setting. Ignoring that no community in 19th century France would be speaking in English, one has to observe the way such a choice contributes to the game of distancing and alienation that seems integral to the film. This is particularly noticeable when scenes feature actors speaking with American accents, some of them with a shockingly contemporary tone. The language itself seems to distance itself from the narrative and from the reality of the world depicted in it.
That distancing is never better visually expressed than in the costumes worn by Emma Bovary, and in the way they relate to the rest of the world surrounding them. The work of Madame Bovary’s costume designers (Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux) in previous films like Adieux à la Reine had left me with a negative opinion on their contributions, considering them often cheap looking and clumsily stylized in such a way that they never seemed to truly belong in the films they appeared in. This doesn’t happen here.
Visually speaking, it’s impossible to look at Emma Bovary without understanding that she is in a certain disconnect regarding everything around her. While the remaining cast seems locked in a general aesthetic of elegant historical recreation, a bit common and expected, Mia Wasikowska emerges as a strangely stylized and colourful creature. Her clothing looks as if it belongs in another film, especially in what regards its colours, turning Wasikowska in a brush of acidic aggressive colour that rips through the images. Her presence creates a visual unbalance, destroying the harmony of even the more idyllic and pastoral images, attractively shot by Andrij Parekh.
Bovary is thus incomprehensible to herself, to the audience and to the physical world she inhabits. A colourful insect one moment, a tropical flower the next, she emerges from the classically romantic settings of the rest of the film. The distance that Barthes imposes on her protagonist makes this adaptation, certainly not perfect or even particularly exciting, but unequivocally different. When one speaks of a work that has been so often adapted, a little surprise and a little variety of intentions and approach is much more than what a great majority of prestige literary adaptations have to offer.