One Thumbs Down: A Review of 2014's Madame Bovary
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Did you know that there is a semi-recent film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary? I didn’t until just the other day when YouTube suggested it to me in its free movies category. Also, I didn’t know YouTube had a free movies category; that’s beside the point though.
Curious as to how well the film adaptation of Madame Bovary could possibly be, I sat down and watched this two-hour long period piece. Premiering in 2014, the film stars Mia Wasikowska as the titular Madame Bovary, Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Charles Bovary, Ezra Miller as Leon Dupuis, Logan Marshal-Green as Marquis d’Andervillers, known in the novel as Rodolphe Boulanger, and Rhys Ifans as Monsieur Lheureux. The film was directed by Sophie Barthes who also had a hand in producing and writing the film.
As a period piece, this is a good, possibly great, film. As an adaptation of Flaubert’s novel, it fails to live up to the depth of the novel.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Madame Bovary then you need to buckle up. In short, this novel is the story of a young woman by the name of Emma. She grew up on a farm and was raised by her single father and household servants. She’s very isolated from people, there aren’t that many people around other than those who work on her father’s farm. She only knows the country life and is this naïve, young woman of 17. In comes Charles; a men ten years Emma’s senior. He’s a nice guy, truly his is, like he’s genuinely a good person. He falls in love with Emma, and the pair quickly get married.
Sorry, this is not a short in short explanation. This novel is beefy and trimming it is very hard to do.
Once Emma is married, she’s happy for maybe a week or two. Unfortunately, she quickly realizes Charles is a boring guy. He’s a good person, a great guy with a stable doctor job, he’s just boring. The pair don’t know how to communicate with one another, so as time goes on Emma quickly bores of her life in the small country village Charles has moved her to. She wants to live well beyond her means with fancy gowns, servants for her every need, only the finest and fanciest foods that the wealthy eat, and baubles all around the house that serve no means other than they look pretty; all these items come courtesy of Monsieur Lheureux, the villain of our story, who continues to extend Emma credit for these items she and Charles will never be able to pay for.
With these material wants come physical wants as well. Emma meets and carries out affairs with various men she comes across in town; namely Leon Dupuis and the Marquis Rodolphe Boulanger. Naturally shit hits the fan by the end as her debts land her in massive trouble and there being no way to fix her situation.
That’s Madame Bovary in short; or as I like to refer to it in my head Madame Bublé. When I was reading this book for the first time, I could not for the life of me remember the second part of its title so I kept referring to it as Madam Bublé in my head; I even said it out loud in my English class. This has nothing to do with the review but I wanted to mention it as it is a vivid memory in my head that is somewhat funny.
Needless commentary aside, the plot of this book can easily come across as nothing more than a bratty teen making stupid mistakes and being a terror, but it’s truly a lot more than that. This is a story about the dangers of dealing with the devil. It’s a story about class divide and the failures of the Bourgeoisie in 1850’s France. It’s a story about how powerless and caged women were in the 1850’s; one can even read this novel and make an argument that women are still in similar positions in today’s day and age.
There is so much going on in this story that I’m not going to be able to do the book justice in this movie review. And this movie adaptation doesn’t do it that much justice either. The best way to view this story is to read the original novel. There is so much that this adaptation leaves out.
That being said, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original text. The main storyline remains the same. Emma is still a young naïve woman who marries Charles and leaves home for the first time in her life. She quickly spends money she and Charles will never have, and becomes enamored by men who just want to use her because she’s young and beautiful.
If I had been forced into a life or death situation where I had to watch this film and then answered the question, “what book is this movie based on?” I could easily live. All the main plot points are there. All the main characters are there. All the main themes and symbols are there. This is indeed Madame Bovary.
Some things are missing though. A spoiler warning is long overdue for this review so here it is now.
For starters, Charles and Emma’s daughter is cut out of the film; as is Charles’ first wife. The latter character really has nothing to do with the main story so it’s only natural for her to be cut from the film and it definitely wasn’t missed. Also cut from the film was most of the time Emma spends in Paris. And the most iconic sex scene of the book was taken out as well.
Yes, for those of you who have read Madame Bovary, the scene in which Emma and the Marquis have sex at a fair in the town hall while awards for farming are being handed out is not in the film. The amount of sex in the movie is very subdued compared to the amount of sex in the book, and I can’t blame the film for not including that many sex scenes. They needed to keep it in an R rating after all.
But with these scenes being cut out, the film fails to to build up any relationship between Emma and her lovers; more time is spent between Emma and Mousier Lheureux. The scenes between the lovers are ones that are desperately needed to show the empty promises and how much these men use her. If you find any character development, let me know.
If you haven’t guessed, there is a massive lack of chemistry in this film The acting is actually the biggest let down. When it comes to Mia Wasikowska, I felt she was an okay casting choice for the titular role. Parts of the portrayal I liked, other parts were hard to watch.
There is a change in the character’s demeanor as she strives towards living a much more opulent lifestyle which is so subtle. Wasikowska’s Emma begins with restraint towards what she wants and dreams of as she knows her place in society. But with every affair and each passing day with her bore of a husband, Emma’s restraint dissipates until her home and wardrobe are full of finery, and her attitude matches that of a high status woman. This shift is only amplified by the production and costuming departments.
Wasikowska’s voice rarely gives any emotion though. Her tone is so flat that she sounds like more of a bore than she believes Charles to be. The physical acting is done wonderfully, like I said, that shift between a restrained country wife and wannabe noble lady is so subtle you don’t notice it until the home is fully redesigned. It’s the emotional acting that struggles; that’s not something you want to hear about an adaptation of a tragedy.
There is no tension when Emma’s romantic affairs fall apart or when her financial issues reach a high. Every once in awhile Wasikowska allows a single tear to run down her face, but that’s the most emotion she gives. Madame Bovary is supposed to be the tale of one woman’s tragedy that was brought on by one’s own stupidity and vanity. Alas, no tension is found in this French tragedy.
Good performances come from Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Charles Bovary and the pack of 10-out-of-10 good boys that make up the Marquis’ hunting dogs. There has to be like a hundred of those good boys, and they are indeed the highlight of the movie. Logan Marshall-Green’s performance as Marquis Rodolphe Boulanger was adequate. I have neither good nor bad notes on Marshall-Green’s performance.
The only performance I thoroughly enjoyed was that of Rhys Ifans. Ifans breathed such life into his Monsieur Lheureux. The cunning, charismatic Lheureux is truly the devil in disguise. He is sly and slimy, and I love this character. I can’t blame Emma for growing a debt of thousands of dollars to this man, I’d have definitely fallen for his charms.
There was only one performance I didn’t like at any point during this movie. Ezra Miller as Leon Dupuis is a severe miscasting. I don’t believe that he’s interested in Wasikowska’s character for one moment. I don’t even believe that he’s interested in using her for sex. I don’t know what his wants or motivations are, nor do I know how he’s supposed to fit into this world given the minimal screen time he has. Miller just does not work in this role.
Outside of the pack of good boys present in just one scene at the halfway point of the film, the only other praises I can sing are about the costume and scene designs. The costume design was headed by Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux, and what they created was simply magnificent.
Emma stands out right from the start. While many in the town tend to wear natural colors in raw fabrics, Emma sports a deep blue traveling dress. No one else in the town wears this color, nor do they wear anything similar to the colors and styles Emma does when she starts to live beyond her means. She’s sporting rich reds, shimmering golds, and oceanic blues. Even in higher society she stands out with the lavish shapes and designs Gasc and Ranchoux created.
Benoît Barouh scene design also helped Emma stand out. The Bovary home begins very plain, each room had simple paint and linen curtains with a table and chairs being the main feature of the room. As Emma continues to buy objects, Barouh dresses the rooms to be much more opulent. The rooms sport candelabras, trinkets, and lavish curtains. No other sets are dressed as much as the Bovary home, even the Marquis’ home is dressed down compared to the Bovary’s home. The set design is truly a work of art.
Overall, this adaptation is a visual masterpiece. Set design, costuming, cinematography, location; I loved looking at all those little details. However, the performances were severely lacking in this adaptation. I could have passed up this movie and not have minded. If you want to see some pretty 19th century gowns, then this is your film. If you want a good film adaptation of Madame Bovary, then you’re going to have to keep looking.