1800s, feature film

Madame Bovary: It’s Not Like the Book

Madame Bovary -- a costume drama starring Wasikowska as well as a discussion between the book and the movie

In this case, the book is better than the movie. I’m talking about Madame Bovary, the 2015 rendition of Gustave Flaubert’s estimable novel, about the sixth since the “talkies” began. Other reviewers discuss how difficult it is to capture the essence of the book on film, and, again in this case, I would have to agree. But it’s not a total disaster.

Occasionally, I think someone — perhaps the screenwriter, perhaps the director, is trying to one-up Flaubert by leaving out key aspects of the novel and cleaning up the protagonist’s very messy death at the end. But the actor in the title role, Mia Wasokowska, somehow makes the role her own. She is not the beauty described in the book, but she somehow creates the character most of us know — the woman crawling for change and excitment and appreciation in the one way she knows how — making love with different men.

Madame Bovary, if you don’t know by this time, is the story of an adulterous woman married to a doctor in a small town in rural France in the 1870s. She marries him after convent school to escape her father’s pig farm, but soon learns that “cultured” life is a bit boring. She at first fends off the advances of men who are attracted to her, but gradually they begin to leave an impression: perhaps life would be more exciting if she did flout convention. And eventually, she does, yielding to the embrace of a count who lives nearby, through a convenient wood. After she asks for his hand in marriage, she is summarily rejected.

About this time, she begins to spend. An unscrupulous merchant has targetted her, sensing her craving for sensation. He sells her beautiful fabric and furniture, drapes and candleabra. Her husband doesn’t have the money for these luxuries, but it doesn’t matter — he will extend her credit.

Of course, she knows no limit and actually criticizes her husband when he complains about her excesses. In the mean time, she moves on to a lover with whom she had a previous flirtation, a young law clerk who is besotted with her but soon tires of her when he learns what she is really like.

The book is very detailed about a number of subplots, like the plight of a servant with a club foot whom Madame Bovary’s husband attempts to cure with an operation. This is touched on in the movie, but the significance of the story line is lost. Paul Giamatti plays Homais, the man who encourages her husband to operate. As usual, he makes the small role interesting.

I am afraid, though, that people who are unfamiliar with the book would end up asking themselves: “What’s the big deal? Get a divorce.” But there is virtually no discussion of the difficulties of women getting a divorce in 19th century France.

In fact, we have a microcosm of the effects of marriage on a woman who was unprepared for it — a compact, 21st century version of Madame Bovary. Which is okay, but not great.

Grade: B-

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