Although worlds away from the deadpan sci-fi whimsy of her 2009 debut, “Cold Souls,” director Sophie Barthes’ subdued take on “Madame Bovary” similarly reveals a sly intelligence at the helm. Measured and absorbing rather than deeply compelling or vital, this latest adaptation of a rarely well-filmed novel makes a strong effort to capture the stiflingly provincial world that Flaubert was able to describe in such precise, painstaking detail on the page. If the slow-burning result falls somewhat short of that admittedly Herculean feat, there are fine compensations in Barthes’ exquisite visual sense (aided by Andrij Parekh’s widescreen imagery) and another fiercely unsympathetic performance from Mia Wasikowska in the title role. Following its Telluride and Toronto berths, this classy period piece deserves to find a discerning arthouse niche.
Although Flaubert’s once-controversial realist masterwork has yielded no shortage of TV and film adaptations (including Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 version and Claude Chabrol’s 1991 picture with Isabelle Huppert), Barthe’s film is billing itself as the first one to be directed by a woman — a savvy enough hook for this particular proto-feminist literary heroine. To place too much emphasis on the gender of the interpreter, of course, would be to ignore one of the key lessons of “Madame Bovary” itself, and the patience and sensitivity of Barthe’s approach need no such qualification. In lieu of the sort of interior monologue that would provide too easy a shortcut into Emma’s thoughts, the filmmaker favors a lucid, enveloping style that relies on actor closeups, meaningful silences and exquisitely oppressive mise-en-scene to tell the story.
That story is of course a well-known one that requires all manner of narrative reductions to fit into a two-hour framework, something the film concedes by having us first encounter Emma Bovary (Wasikowska) near the end of her travails, racing over scenic woodland with a bottle of poison clutched in her fist. From there the script (co-written by Barthes and producer Felipe Marino) flashes back to Emma’s ritualized convent upbringing and her loveless marriage to a kind, stolid doctor, Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), with whom she settles down in the small French town of Yonville. The camera stays largely fixed on Emma’s pale countenance in these early scenes as she slowly takes in every detail of her existence — the drab, spare rooms, the overgrown garden, the husband with no imagination or desire to improve their station — and finds it wanting.
Initially Emma resists the temptations that flit across her path, first in the form of the merchant Monsieur Lheureux (an insinuating Rhys Ifans), peddling all manner of fine silks and bric-a-brac, and then in the darkly handsome form of Leon (Ezra Miller, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), a young law student who soon makes his affections for Madame Bovary known. But when she gently rebuffs him, Leon moves away to pursue his studies in Rouen, a city of culture and prosperity that, for Emma, takes on an almost talismanic significance. And when she finds herself even more aggressively pursued by another man, the handsome and worldly Marquis d’Andervilliers (a louche Logan Marshall-Green), this time she gives in to her passions, hesitantly at first, but then with increasingly desperate abandon.
As Emma pursues her lovers and redecorates the Bovary manse with equal vigor (in this time-constricted retelling, she remains childless), viewers may find themselves recalling 2011’s “Jane Eyre,” a similarly unexpected foray into 19th-century costume drama from a Sundance-launched filmmaker (incidentally, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin nombre” played Park City the same year as “Cold Souls”). What both adaptations have in common, of course, is Wasikowska, whose chronic inability to court the viewer’s affection makes her a fine fit here. Few actresses are so good at projecting a natural air of discontent, and Barthes allows much of the drama to play out in her star’s face — in the hopeful smile she flashes when Charles agrees to perform a potentially career-making operation on a clubfooted young man, Hippolyte (Luke Tittensor), and in the disgust and loathing that overtake her when the surgery goes predictably, horribly awry.
Even while Emma’s inner landscape comes into tragic focus, in climactic scenes that turn a bit leaden and repetitive with overstatement, Barthes and Wasikowska avoid the mistake of attempting to pin down her every impulse, and their view of the character is fittingly unromantic: We’re always aware that Madame Bovary’s true desire is not for either Leon or the Marquis (who are effectively interchangeable even at the height of sexual passion), or for the trappings of wealth and luxury that she so recklessly accepts from Lheureux. Her true desire seems to be for desire itself, for anything that promises even temporary escape from the strict moral codes and conventions that govern her sadly circumscribed world.
Her conditions could be far worse, of course — a point that Barthes drives home with a lingering shot of Emma passing three homely peasant woman on her walk, or showing a moment’s pity to Hippolyte, now even worse off as an amputee. The emphasis on visual storytelling is particularly apparent in the film’s most ambitious sequence, a hunting party thrown by the Marquis, in which Barthes allows her harrowing natural imagery and the film’s largely piano-based score (composed by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine) to impose a sense of tragic foreboding. The symbolism may be heavy-handed, but it’s broodingly effective nonetheless.
The decision to have the actors speak English in their native accents — most noticeably in the case of Paul Giamatti (who starred in “Cold Souls”) as the village pharmacist Monsieur Homais, a character whose motivations here feel somewhat underrealized — is one of the few choices here that run counter the unimpeachable realism for which Flaubert was known, in his rigorous search for “le mot juste.” In all other respects, the film’s period stylings are more than persuasive, from Benoit Barouh’s mostly spare, occasionally sumptuous prediction design to the bold-hued ball gowns favored by costume designer Valerie Ranchoux. Best of all is Parekh’s earthy 35mm lensing; alternating between precise compositions and carefully handheld camera movements, the d.p. makes highly expressive use of natural light, whether it’s emanating from a gold candelabra or spilling in through a window.