If the new film by French American expatriate Sophie Barthes is a rather dull movie, it is also an effective deconstruction of the middle-brow English costume drama. The Merchant Ivory film, she suggests, is often just another expression of the consumer society. Thinking about luxury goods, and big budget films, financed on credit can even tell us about the process of reading and writing fiction.
First the bad. Mia Wasikowska and Ezra Miller are both far too young and inexperienced to play Emma Bovary and Léon Dupuis. The rest of the cast is competent, but nobody stands out. Even the excellent American actor Paul Giamatti seems flat and uninspired. At times, he reminded me of a high-school drama teacher walking his students through the readings of lines he knows they won’t understand for another 5 or 10 years. Wasikowska, who was an excellent Jane Eyre, at least knows when to give up. Halfway through the movie, she quite literally just stops acting, gives up trying to channel Emma Bovary’s emotions, and accepts the idea that she’s basically just a “model” in a film by the late Robert Bresson.
Now for the good. You can “act” Gustave Flaubert’s lines as badly as you want. They were still written by Gustave Flaubert. Sophie Barthes, like Mia Wasikowska, knows when to give up, to get out of the way of the story, and let it tell itself. While the setting, the cinematography, and the costume design all shout out “Merchant Ivory,” Flaubert’s attention to “le mot juste” is fundamentally different from Jane Austen’s or E.M. Foster’s. It’s no accident that Karl Marx’s daughter was one of Madame Bovary’s earliest translators. Jane Austen’s novels are a harsh attack on her own family within a larger conservative project. A Jane Austen heroine is a member of the lower gentry who marries rich. Emma Bovary, on the other hand, marries an oafish country doctor. Instead of moving into Mr. Darcy’s castle, she takes up residence in a modest house in provincial Yonville, a small town in northern France. Quickly realizing how dissatisfied she is with both her husband and her modest station in life, she buries herself in romantic novels.
Sophie Barthes’ deft creative choice is to downplay Emma’s reading to concentrate on her spending. Flaubert was making a conservative, and sexist, critique of “woman’s literature.” Popular novels seduce silly young girls away from their husbands, and leave them stranded in a world of romantic fantasy. Barthes’ film, on the other hand, focuses on the nexus between consumer spending and bad fiction. These days Emma Bovary would probably be reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Mia Wasikowska is Barthes surrogate inside the novel. As she fills her husband’s modest provincial house with luxury goods neither of them really need, she wrecks his credit. Sophie Barthes, in turn, spends millions of dollars of her investors’ money costumes and period décor, her sumptuous Merchant Ivory set pieces becoming the cinematic expression of Emma Bovary’s corrupt, petty bourgeois imagination. Mia Wasikowska’s horrible, tone deaf piano playing, a leitmotif which reoccurs throughout the film, is a powerful expression of creative anxiety. “Do I sound like that?” Barthes seems to be asking. “Have I spent all this money only to prove that I’m an incompetent artist?”
It’s fun to speculate on how different Barthes film would have been if she had cast the more sensual Dakota Johnson instead of the prim, severe Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska portrays Emma Bovary with an American accent so it’s not much of a stretch. But I think Barthes has made a deliberate creative choice. Henry Lloyd-Hughes, the actor who plays Charles Bovary is 28-years-old, young, fit, handsome, nothing like the oafish provincial doctor of the novel. It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a young woman falling in love with him. But the marriage is loveless, sexless. Charles has little inclination to sleep with his wife, even on their wedding night. She even has to ask him to remove her dress. “I can’t do it myself,” she says testily. The problem isn’t that Charles Bovary is unattractive, Barthes is telling us, but that middle-class marriages are doomed, almost from the beginning.Without the possibility of romance, sex becomes just another boring, daily chore.
Yonville is actually an attractive little town, lush, green, covered with ivy. But it’s soulless, lifeless, like an American suburban without TV or the Internet. The parish priest, for example, is more interested in running the church’s preschool than he is in hearing Emma’s confession. He quite literally doesn’t understand the difference between material goods, and spiritual uplift. “If you have bread and a good fire,” he says. “You have everything.” Most of the women are uneducated peasants, most of the men dull, sexist, petty bourgeoisie.
Taking the place of the church are consumer goods. Monsieur Lheureux, the local merchant, becomes, not a father confessor, but a tempter and a seducer. “ Money should never be a problem,” he says, “only a solution.” It almost sounds like something Don Draper would come up with. Soon, he has her deeply in debt. She turns to sex, something Barthes has already made clear she doesn’t particularly enjoy, having affairs, first with Rodolphe Boulanger, a selfish aristocrat sleeps with her the way she buys luxury goods, and then with Leon Dupuis, a callow law clerk who imagines he’s a great romantic poet, but abandons her the moment French provincial society shows even the mildest disapproval. She tries to convince her husband into opening a practice in a larger city, but it doesn’t work. Charles Bovary is a barely competent country doctor. When a local pharmacist pushes him into attempting an innovative surgical procedure on a stable boy’s club foot, he botches the operation, and destroys, in turn, the poor young man’s foot, and his own practice.
After Monsieur Lheureux “writes off “ the bad debt, bill collectors start dunning the young couple for money. Mia Wasikowska, a 25-year-old actress who looks even younger, becomes the face of the heavily indebted millennial generation. She’s a young woman who’s barely out of her teens, but with the amount of money she owes, she has no more future than a senior citizen. Rodolphe Boulanger, her rich boyfriend, won’t bail out her the way Christian Grey is willing to help Anastasia Steele. “I don’t have the money you need,” he says, then repeats, with increasingly bored frustration, no more sympathetic to his lover than a bill collector would be a complete stranger. “I don’t have the money you need.” In the end, Emma Bovary is denied the release, even of the kind of cheap melodrama she would read in one of her romantic novels. Attempting to seduce Monsieur Lheureux, offering herself in exchange for debt relief, he scoffs at her in contempt. She’s not worth the 10,000 Francs she owes, and he’s not interested, even if she were. He’s the cold, impersonal dramatization of a credit card company, not a silent movie villain twirling his mustache in anticipation of deflowering an innocent young maiden. Finally, she realizes she’s come to the end of the line, that the only way out is to kill herself. She drinks arsenic, runs out into the woods, and dies in excruciating pain.
What other choice does capitalism give us these days?