‘Madame’ speaks to the mod­ern age

Two new films build on the rich screen his­tory of Flaubert’s flawed yet fas­ci­nat­ing Emma Bo­vary.

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - By Su­san King su­san.king@la­times.com

It would seem un­likely that a story about a 19th cen­tury young French woman es­cap­ing her mar­riage and te­dious pro­vin­cial life by em­bark­ing on scan­dalous af­fairs would have much ap­peal to 21st cen­tury au­di­ences.

But in this case the woman in ques­tion is Gus­tave Flaubert’s f lawed but fas­ci­nat­ing Madame Bo­vary, and she is the sub­ject of two new movies that deal with her fic­tional life in very dif­fer­ent ways.

Emma Bo­vary may not have the woman-war­rior ap­peal of a Kat­niss Everdeen or the as­pi­ra­tional drive of Peggy Olson, but her char­ac­ter still speaks to mod­ern au­di­ences, noted So­phie Barthes, whose ver­sion of “Madame Bo­vary” star­ring Mia Wasikowska opens June 12.

Emma’s self-de­struc­tive pat­tern of de­sir­ing the in­ac­ces­si­ble and the “per­ma­nent dis­sat­is­fac­tion with your plight is a very mod­ern syn­drome,” said Barthes. “Flaubert cap­tured this at the birth of cap­i­tal­ism. The book is not aging, in a way, be­cause each char­ac­ter has f laws that are still preva­lent in so­ci­ety. It’s about hu­man na­ture and the hu­man con­di­tion.”

The other Madame Bo­vary movie, “Gemma Bovery,” based on Bri­tish au­thor Posy Sim­monds’ graphic novel in­spired by Flaubert, opened last Fri­day to gen­er­ally strong re­views. It’s di­rected by French film­maker Anne Fon­taine, who liked the Bri­tish writer Sim­monds’ more comedic en­vi­sion­ing of the Flaubert tale.

Both Fon­taine and Barthes be­lieve the rea­son for the “Bo­vary” re­nais­sance is sim­ple: The story is re­lat­able to con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences.

“I think every­body has some­thing in­side of him or her of this char­ac­ter,” said Fon­taine, who pre­vi­ously di­rected “Coco Be­fore Chanel.” “She is wait­ing for some­thing more in­tense, some­thing deeper.”

What has changed, Barthes noted, is the “fe­male con­di­tion. I think Flaubert had a very strong fem­i­nine sen­si­bil­ity. I think he felt for women at that time who couldn’t work, couldn’t di­vorce and are trapped for life.”

Barthes said the women in Flaubert’s world “would be highly ed­u­cated, and then they would have noth­ing to do with this ed­u­ca­tion. They would just be mar­ried.”

Madame Bo­vary has a rich screen his­tory, in­clud­ing movie ver­sions by such au­teurs as Jean Renoir, Vin­cente Min­nelli and Claude Chabrol, who brought “Madame Bo­vary” to the sil­ver screen. For Barthes, those ear­lier films were in­tim­i­dat­ing.

“I didn’t write the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the script,” said Barthes. “I got it from my agency. My first re­ac­tion was I’m not touch­ing this. I re­mem­ber think­ing this is ridicu­lous — Renoir, Min­nelli and Chabrol have made ver­sions. But then I was re­ally cu­ri­ous to see how it was adapted and the an­gle. Then I started read­ing it just out of cu­rios­ity, and I re­ally liked it.”

“Gemma Bovery” stars Gemma Arter­ton, who starred in the 2010 adap­ta­tion of Sim­monds’ “Ta­mara Drewe,” as a beau­ti­ful young Bri­tish woman who ar­rives in a small vil­lage in Nor­mandy — the lo­ca­tion of “Madame Bo­vary” — with her older hus­band (Ja­son Fle­myng), a fur­ni­ture re­storer.

She quickly comes to the at­ten­tion of her neigh­bor (Fabrice Lu­chini), the lo­cal baker and Flaubert fa­natic, who be­comes ob­sessed with his charm­ing neigh­bor. But it doesn’t take long be­fore life im­i­tates Flaubert as Gemma be­comes bored with her mar­riage and em­barks on an af­fair.

Sim­monds, said Arter­ton, “has a real tal­ent for tak­ing those clas­sic nov­els that are al­ways so ro­man­tic with big emo­tions, big story and big lan­guage and sort of sim­pli­fies it and puts in a lot of hu­mor in it and cheek­i­ness.”

Gemma is a far dif­fer­ent pro­tag­o­nist than Emma. “I think in ‘Madame Bo­vary,’ she is not the most sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter,” said Arter­ton, who moved to Paris to learn French be­fore pro­duc­tion be­gan. “I think the great thing about this adap- tation of the story is mak­ing her English and a lit­tle bit wide-eyed. I wanted you to find her charm­ing and warm.”

Find­ing the right actress to play Emma was piv­otal for Barthes.

“With Mia, I saw all of her work,” said the direc­tor. “She was 23 when she did this. She is ex­tremely ma­ture. Mia is some­one who has a very strong in­ner life. She’s a bit of an old soul.”

“Madame Bo­vary” was a fam­ily af­fair for Barthes. Her hus­band, An­drij Parekh, was the film’s cine­matog­ra­pher.

“We love vis­ual art and paint­ing,” said Barthes. “This was an aes­thetic adventure to­gether. We shot ev­ery­thing in the south of Nor­mandy. When I first went to the re­gion, I fell in love with the coun­try. Then I went back ev­ery sea­son to see how the light was chang­ing. There are a lot of pain­ters who come from that re­gion. And you un­der­stand why when you spend time here.”

Barthes’ “Madame Bo­vary” presents an Emma who is very young, fresh out of con­vent school and trapped in a love­less mar­riage with the well-mean­ing but bor­ing Charles. “In the Chabrol ver­sion, she is a much more ma­ture per­son,” said Barthes.

Emma, she ref lects, is a “very com­plex char­ac­ter. What we are try­ing to do is not make her a vic­tim. What she wants is unattain­able.”

Alchemy

MIA WASIKOWSKA, left, steps into char­ac­ter in “Madame Bo­vary,” while Gemma Arter­ton con­trib­utes a Bri­tish twist in the more comedic “Gemma Bovery.”

Jerome Pre­bois Mu­sic Box Films

UCLA Film & Tele­vi­sion Ar­chive

VIN­CENTE MIN­NELLI’S “Madame Bo­vary” fea­tures Louis Jor­dan and Jen­nifer Jones in the ti­tle role.

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