The overflow of enthusiastic reviews for the new 2015 film edition of “Madame Bovary” suggests a disturbing level of illiteracy among today’s film critics. Not just an illiteracy of literature, but also of film. None of the many film adaptations of Flaubert’s novel is absolutely true to its source, but this one is absolute in the wrongness of every detail. It begins with Emma’s suicide run to obtain the arsenic , the image a near-photostat of a similar scene in Chabrol’s 1991 film. The difference is that here she already eaten the poison, and she dies alone on the road. And for a heroine of a French romantic novel to die alone…well, it rather contrary to the point of it all, isn’t it?
In his 1949 adaptation, Vincente Minnelli took a bold approach to the novel by telling the story in flashbacks during the author’s courtroom defense of his novel against charges that it would compromise public morality. He insisted that if we could understand Emma’s character, unfortunately shaped by the influence of too many romantic novels, we would forgive her indiscretions. Although this is not Flaubert’s Emma’s, Minnelli’s concept was strong and resulted in a solid adaptation that did not insult its source. Sophie Barthes, together with her screenwriter Felipe Marino, who for personal reasons writes under the pseudonym Rose Barreneche, have designed a boyish Madame Bovary who is a cold fish on her wedding night, and comes alive only under the caresses of feminine playboys.
Flaubert’s Emma is hot with desire from the start, and is burning up in anticipation of her marriage to Charles Bovary, who has been making personal house calls after fixing Emma’s father’s broken leg. It is only after attending a party given by a Marquis, where she realizes the hopeless lowliness of her social status, and that her husband’s lack of ambition will prevent their improving it, that she becomes dissatisfied with her domestic situation and looks to other men for excitement. In Barthes’ film, the Marquis’ invitation comes late in the story, after she has already had one failed affair, and she takes up with the Marquis himself, who replaces the character of Rodolphe Boulanger in the novel. Furthermore, the party has been pointlessly changed to a hunting party, from which the essential element of ballroom dancing is absent.
Barthes’ movie is stripped of most of Flaubert’s story. What remains is the tale of an adulterous wife who goes into debt from overspending on credit and kills herself because she cannot face her husband, who she has caused to lose everything. The two bits that survive the pruning, Charles’ failed attempt to surgically cure a young man’s club foot, and the entrapment of Emma by the merchant Lheureux , are drawn out and over-developed into the two major plotlines of the movie. And even these scenes are recast in a bratty move to undermine Flaubert’s tale. Barthes and Marino have devised a pointless scene in which Emma protests that it is not her place to convince her husband to perform the club-foot operation. They have also changed, for no apparent reason, the details of the confiscation of Bovary’s property on several points. Most damaging is changing Emma’s discovery of the public posting of the auctioning of the property and her subsequent attempts to hide the news from her husband to Charles Bovary being the one to discover the auction, note, rendering everything that follows, including Emma’s suicide, unnecessary. Furthermore, when the merchant Lheureux suggests Emma pay of her debt with sex, Emma is about to agree when an overwhelming revulsion causes her to change her mind. In this version, it is Lheureux who is revolted by her acquiescence, and pushes her away.
I am not one to react with hostility to a film that re-invents its source material. I loved “Clueless,” Amy Heckerling’s valley girl revision of Jane Austin’s “Emma, as well as “My Own Private Idaho,” Gus Van Sant’s take on Henry 5. The problem with Barthes’ minimalization of “Madame Bovary” is that she has no new vision of the novel, or even of the other films based on the novel. She dresses Mia Wasikowska up to resemble Isabelle Huppert’s Emma from Chabrol’s film, but Mia winds up looking more like Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and giving line readings that would embarrass a high school drama teacher. Barthes loves that shot in Chabrol’s film of Emma running down the forest path clutching the hem of her dress so much that she appropriates it for those transitional shots in which her Emma runs toward or away from anything.
If Barthes had even the shadow of a film-making talent, some of this might be over-looked. But she can’t even keep her line of vision straight, and on at least one occasion, breaks the 180 degree law, reversing the placement of characters in the frame by placing her camera on the reverse side of the action. Quite simply, this latest version of “Madame Bovary” is one long vomit against genius. Not just Flaubert’s genius, but the genius of both Minnelli and Chabrol. Barthes is not only puking on literature, but on the movies.