Material Good, by Sarah Brinks
Madame Bovary and Project Runway have one thing in common. They are all about the clothes. Sophie Barthes’ adaptation of Madame Bovary does not skimp on the textiles and nor should it. I was unfamiliar with the story of Madame Bovary before seeing this film. It is a simple story of a young, beautiful woman named Emma (played by Mia Wasikowska) marrying a practical stranger, Charles Bovary, who is a country doctor. She is bored by her new life and after turning down one affair and regretting it she begins cheating on her husband. She buys fine things and clothing on credit and accrues vast debt.
As I mentioned, costumes are vital to this film. There is ample attention paid to the costumes, not only the final outer layer but even the elaborate undergarments and the effort needed to dress and undress every day. Costume designers Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux designed both gorgeous gowns and practical daily wear. We see early in the film that Emma likes “things.” She displays her limited knick knacks in her modest home when she first moves in with Charles but, like a magpie, her eye is constantly drawn to the beautiful and fine. Whether it is a young and handsome man or a fine piece of fabric, she desires it. Finally once she meets the Marquis she can no longer deny herself her finery and she buys clothing, redesigns the house, and begins an affair.
Madame Bovary is beautifully shot and handles Emma’s transition from bored housewife to opulent debtor subtly. You can see it coming long before it happens but the film takes its time getting there. Wasikowska’s performance is vital in this aspect. She never changes so much that it feels fake but she subtly changes the way she speaks and how she holds herself. There are also subtle changes to her make-up, hair, and even her daily skills such as playing the piano.
Wasikowska continues to prove herself one of the greatest young talents working in film now. Her unique beauty makes her seamless in a modern setting or in period film and her talent translates to any time period. I was constantly reminded of Jane Eyre while watching Madame Bovary. The two films feel like cousins. Unlike Jane who is focused and serious, Emma Bovary is listless and bored. Wasikowska manages to walk the line between cunning and vapid masterfully. Wasikowska is a stand out but there are many good performances in the film. Paul Giamatti has his usual charisma and charm on screen as Monsieur Homais, a town leader. Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Charles Bovary is distant and oblivious in a consistent way that fits the setting. Logan Marshall-Green as the Marquis does that handsome, arrogant thing that he does in most of his films and it is the one performance I didn’t like. Green is the only actor that feels too modern for the film. Despite the setting and elaborate costumes, he still looks like and actor from L.A. in a costume. I know it is a nitpicky thing but he was too tan and it actually took me out of the film a little since he is supposed to be playing a 19th century French aristocrat. Rhys Ifans abandons his familiar Welsh accent and is both charming and devilish as the merchant Monsieur Lheureux. Ifans steals the scene nearly every time he is on screen in a deliciously beguiling role. He places the finest items in front of Emma and promises her credit when she doesn’t fully understand the concept.
Madame Bovary is a story we have seen many times but it so beautifully filmed and well directed by Barthes. This is only Barthes’ second feature length film and I am eager to see what she will do in the future. As I mentioned this feels like a companion piece to Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. They look and feel similar but feature two very different types of heroines played by the same actress. They would make a compelling double-feature. I’m a life-long fan of period pieces and costume dramas so Madame Bovary is right up my alley. I was delighted with it from its first frame to its last.