An overly literary script combined with a wearying theatricality mar Arturo Ripstein’s loose black-and-white adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” christened “The Reasons of the Heart.” The soapy title fits the helmer’s attempted deconstruction of the meller form, though it’s not clear what the tinkering adds to either Flaubert or the film itself, centered on a Mexican housewife with a bland hubby and an uncontrollable passion for an unsympathetic lover. Ripstein’s rep will be the main reason “Reasons” will bounce around the fest circuit.
The opening owes more than a little to Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix humaine,” as Emilia (Arcelia Ramirez) engages more or less in a monologue within her downmarket apartment. She grasps at her reflection in the mirror, a gesture of frustration that sets the deliberately theatrical tone for the remaining two hours.
Emilia has a regular rendezvous in an upstairs garret with Cuban sax player Nicolas (Vladimir Cruz) and is far more focused on her obsessive need for her lover than on her neglected 10-year-old daughter Isabel (Paola Arroyo), or her dull, hard-working husband, Javier (Plutarco Haza). She goes up to prepare for her usual assignation, literally licking the sheets before his arrival in one of several over-the-top flourishes that struggle to reconstitute melodrama’s excesses yet fail to make them meaningful in even a postmodern way.
Nicolas can’t cope with her neediness and dumps her, saying, “I may be an asshole but I’m not a bastard” (perhaps the line works better in Spanish). Emilia falls into a downward spiral of selfishness and self-destruction, giving herself to sleazy upstairs neighbor Jasper (Alejandro Suarez), bemoaning fate when creditors repossess her furniture, and crying over her inability to escape her passions. Javier has resigned himself to his station, but Emilia is incapable of reducing her impossible demands on life.
Ripstein has previously played with staginess (“The Virgin of Lust”) and black-and-white (“The Ruination of Men”), and his impressive career is full of interesting adaptations, but “Reasons” too often feels like empty experimentation. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” said Blaise Pascal, quoted at the start, yet the film says nothing new about the inability of supposedly intelligent people to explain or justify giving their love to an obviously unsuitable object of affection.
Ripstein’s frequent scripter (and wife) Paz Alicia Garciadiego uses language to convey a hothouse atmosphere of studied literacy whose prose styling pays homage to the pic’s source material, but never makes a case for the self-conscious artifice. When Emilia yells at her daughter, “Go somewhere else with your drama,” auds will be tempted to direct the same exclamation at the filmmakers.
The most memorable character is Ruti, the building concierge, who acts as witness and stable ur-force, wonderfully fleshed out by a magnetic Patricia Reyes Spindola. Alejandro Cantu’s lensing is pleasingly textured, and his camera describes the limited spaces in interesting ways. Music, especially the wails of Nicolas’ saxophone, adds another self-referential layer with its film-noir moodiness.