Sophie Barthes : Madame Bovary (2014) “I refuse to stand inert beneath this torrent of despair.” “Is not your visit a trifle inopportune?” “This is an absolute reproach.” The writers of those lines, who do not seem to know the meaning of the word “reproach,” should if there were any justice have their writing hands operated on by Charbovari. Yet the irony is that one of the worst screenplays I have had to suffer through since Cecil B. DeMille hung up his megaphone is the basis of a quite good motion picture. It is not Flaubert, but that is not a basis for complaint. I’m sure there were Chaucer purists who abhorred Shakespeare’s version of the Cressida legend when it first hit the boards simply because it was so different from its putative source. Madame Bovary is weak where it is weak not because of what it isn’t; it is weak because of what it is. Phrases like “a moshing together of Ibsen and Barbara Cartland” run through my mind but to tar the movie in that way would be unjust. I did at first fear that Nora would get out of her doll’s house just to find herself ripping her blouse with the best of them, but Emma’s downward spiral, which bears only the most superficial resemblance to Flaubert, is a tale well told, superbly paced and exquisitely directed in both the montage and the handling of the actors. The art direction and costuming create a visual feast and the overall feeling of pathetic rural tragedy imposes itself in a genuinely satisfying way. But pathetic tragedy is not tragedy and it is decidedly not Flaubert. The fault is partly that of the film around whose celluloid neck is hung the hideous weight of dialogue that seems to have been written in a Dunkin Donuts somewhere in the vicinity of West Covina. But the novel Madame Bovary itself is equally to blame in a manner of speaking for that work evokes in an almost pure form the haunting Flaubertian sense of idiocy and futility - that unpleasantly sour taste at the very idea of living – and elicits it in the medium of minimal and disengaged verbal beauty. Flaubert raises disenchantment to very nearly metaphysical levels and one would have to be as great an artist to recreate the Flaubertian world. The safer bet is turn it in to just another tragedy – which is what Sophie Barthes did and did very well indeed. It is unfortunate that the script which she had a hand in writing should have endlessly betrayed the luscious visuals and the actors who had the thankless task of mouthing the words. So far was this from missing le mot juste, things would have been much better if there were no mots at all. The English actors did their best the give the appearance of actual diction to what they had to say and having Paul Giamatti retain his American accent added clever color to the otherwise curiously abbreviated satirical portrait of the progressivist go-getter Homais (His profession as a pharmacist was completely eliminated). And I did like the fact that the Abbé Bournisien was depicted as an even bigger nitwit in the movie than in the novel. But then there’s Mia Wasikowska. Poor Mia Wasikowska. She’s not only very attractive with the delicate sort of facial features I’m a sucker for, she also gave a performance that is most certainly better than very good. As long as she kept her mouth shut. Her reaction shots were wonderful and her pantomime of Emma’s increasingly frantic desperation was well worth the price of admission. Her final confrontation with the sinister colporteur appositely named L’Heureux was from an acting standpoint the best scene in the picture. But someone has to take the blame for the way she spoke her lines. The girl is Australian so she must have had a dialogue coach; so why in heaven’s name give her a bland suburban American accent when the rest of the company was largely Royal Shakespeare or the equivalent? She sounded like Malibu Upon Avon. In addition her pronunciation of the French names was so bad one must suspect there was some sort of strange joke involved: Mon-shur Oh-May, Mon-shur La-Bay, Mon-shur Low-Row. Maybe she learned her French from her father, the only actor in the film who affected a French accent in a way that made him sound more like Pepe Le Pew than anyone recognizably Gallic.
There is a sense in which Madame Bovary (unlike Salammbô which, given modern techniques in video and cinematic computer graphics would make a splendid adult-themed sand and sandal epic) cannot be translated to the film (and certainly not to the stage) and this has to do with the very essential modernist quality of the novel. I assume I’m not the only one who has this feeling, but when I read Madame Bovary I feel I can picture and imagine plausibly the thoughts and motives behind the action every one of the characters (even the hapless Charles, a bumbling paillasse who was reduced to a bland nonentity by the actor who played him). I can see and understand every one of the characters, that is, except Emma Bovary. I cannot see her. I have difficulty imagining what she looks like (though Wasikowska was a good if somewhat glamorous approximation), and, despite long analyses and the fact that the book spends most of its time following her around, I don’t feel at all comfortably familiar with what she is thinking and feeling. In an important sense she is a cipher, action and reaction without articulate consciousness. The actual motives and “introspection” are provided from a distant third person perspective that is the narration (very different from the internal monologue devised by Zola and developed into the sort of stream of consciousness which is usually thought to be the hallmark of modernist literature). This is strange, even uncanny. Something of an accounting may lie in Flaubert’s famous exclamation, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Flaubert did not just mean that he was exposing to the world his own foibles and romantic delusions, a sally of the boring sort that only psychoanalysts can listen to. Rather Emma is invisible because the character and the standpoint or “consciousness” (though I hate to use that term) of the narrator/author merge. We cannot see Madame Bovary and do not understand her because in writing or reading her story we are Madame Bovary and she did not visualize or understand herself. This may sound a bit contorted and all I can do is imperfectly suggest what I think, but it is, I think, what cuts the links with the Balzacs, Dickens’s and Hugos of the world and creates at a blow a new narrative literature.
By way of envoi let me express the profound wish that Barthes not even contemplate filming Flaubert’s masterpiece, L’Éducation sentimentale. If she does I will personally visit the set and cut off a lock of Wasikowska’s hair.