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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The story of a blossoming woman stuck in a lifeless marriage in a provincial French backwater certainly has the potential to speak to modern audiences as both an early feminist drama and a biting social critique of bourgeois narrowness.

Begin there in thinking about the latest adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a semi-successful attempt to transfer Flaubert to the screen.

Wasikowska is trapped inside Madame Bovary
Wasikowska is trapped inside Madame Bovary

Bored and filled with inchoate romantic longing, newly married Emma Bovary tries to divert herself with wanton material acquisitions (fine dresses and fancy furnishings) that mire her in debt. She also engages in affairs that she hopes will provide an escape route from her country-doctor husband, a decent fellow of simple tastes and limited ambition.

There’s no faulting the production values that director Sophie Barthes brings to the task of adapting Flaubert for the screen. Working with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, Barthes creates the feeling of isolation and monotony that awaits Emma on the dawn of each day, the numbing emptiness of life at the bottom rungs of the middle class.

Given the standard of her time, Emma is supposed to be happy to have a husband and provider, but she’s reluctant to resign herself to a compromised existence far from the civilities of Rouen, the city that beckons and taunts her with its opera and high culture.

The screenplay by Barthes and co-writer Felipe Marino must make omissions and condensations, and although I haven’t read Madame Bovary since college, it struck me that Barthes and Marino have done a defensible job of focusing Flaubert’s story for the screen. Flaubert devotees may disagree, particularly when it comes to the omission of Emma’s child.

In this edition, Emma Bovary is played by Mia Wasikowska, whom I think only intermittently fixes our attention. Some reviewers have pointed out that Wasikowska is perfect for the role because she makes no effort to elicit our sympathies. Still, Wasikowska’s performance can be seen as a study in only sporadic connection.

Employing a variety of accents and styles, the supporting cast acquits itself well enough.

In a generally subdued atmosphere, Rhys Ifans stands out as Monsieur Lheureux, a merchant who senses Emma’s vulnerability, sells her as much luxury merchandise as possible (on credit) and then pushes her into a ruinous, debt-riddled corner.

As Charles Bovary, Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays a character who, by definition, is a bit of a cipher. Ezra Miller portrays Leon, a youthful law student who falls for Emma. Under different circumstances, he would have made a good match for her.

Emma initially rebuffs Leon. She does, however, have an affair with the disreputable Marquis d’Anderveilliers (Logan Marshall-Green). Of course, Emma expects too much of the relationship.

Paul Giamatti brings his usual avidity and a bit of grubbiness to the role of Monsieur Homais, an ambitious pharmacist who pushes Dr. Bovary into performing a supposedly ground-breaking operation on poor, club-footed villager. The operation, of course, does not go well.

Not without its virtues, Madame Bovary dwells on Emma’s suffocating provincial surroundings, perhaps to emphasize that the constraints of her rote existence have alienated her from her natural self.

If Barthes succeeds in creating a plausible 19th century environment, she also manages to dull the movie’s edge. The damp streets and uninviting interiors aren’t enough to carry the day.

By the end, I felt as if I were re-familiarizing myself with elements of Flaubert’s plot without penetrating the agonizing and acutely observant heart of a great story.