Sophie Barthes’ Flaubert flick doesn’t hate women

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Madame Bovary
RPL Film Theatre
July 23-26
3.5 out of 5

Few literary classics have endured the radical change of perception Madame Bovary has. Once heralded one of the greatest novels ever written, the plot has taken a pounding in modern times (although the prose and style remain breathtaking). Patronizing at best, Gustave Flaubert’s depiction of women as mercurial, frivolous bimbos easily brainwashed by romance novels just doesn’t cut it in the 21st century.

The most interesting aspect of this adaptation is that it was written and directed by a woman. Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls) does a very good job at explaining how Emma Bovary’s mind works and how her arrested development can be traced back to the patriarchal society that suppresses her.

The plot: more in love with the idea of marrying a doctor than with the man himself, Emma (Mia Wasikowska) weds Charles Bovary and sets up shop in the small town of Yonville, France. It soon becomes clear country life doesn’t suit her at all. And neither does Charles.

Frustrated with her existence not living up to her adolescent expectations, Emma spends extravagantly and starts an affair with the cadish Marquis d’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus). Meanwhile, she sets her husband up for a fall by pushing him to perform a surgery he is not at all equipped to execute.

Much of Flaubert’s ornate prose is left to Mia Wasikowska. A subtle performer, Wasikowska is superb as Emma: obviously flawed but never willfully malicious. In fact, the character is depicted as intelligent and sensitive, very much like a child who never had the chance to grow up before getting married. Her compulsive shopping can be traced to her desire for fulfillment, which explains why she connects bankruptcy and death.

Emma is raised believing that life’s ultimate goal is getting married, so it’s hard to blame her for her mistakes. The movie is more damning in its treatment of the male characters, who treat her as decoration — even her devout Charles, who is tragically unable to understand her. Emma’s lack of worldliness makes her easy to manipulate, from her rakish lovers to the merchant who turns her into a shopaholic.

The smartest decision made in this adaptation is not taking the book at face value, regardless of the author’s intentions. This is definitely not your grandparents’ costume drama.