Saturday, February 23, 2008

Madame Bovary (2000)

A rather lavish production with regards to costumes, scenery and details, but I do wonder at the popularity of such a story (at least as portrayed here).

The story begins with a young Emma in a convent school being visited by her father with the news that her mother has died. Overcome with grief, the nuns believe she is turning to God, however she is too full of life and her rather earthly enjoyments soon direct her back home. Her father is a gentleman farmer and shortly after her return home, he has a fall from a tree. She calls the local doctor - Charles Bovary who finds himself quite taken by the spirited young Emma. In short order she finds herself married. Charles is quiet and amiable and thrilled with his lovely new wife, but Emma finds married life not as exciting or as thrilling as she was hoping.

Although she makes attempts at enlivening her marriage with some passion, she doesn’t succeed very well and feeling rather sorry for herself and suffocated by the small town in which they live, she becomes depressed. In an effort to brighten her up, Charles manages to illicit an invitation to a nearby noble’s ball where Emma dances with a Vicomte and believes that that particular moment was the highlight of her life.

After the ball, the boring reality of her life returns and all she longs for is the glitter and excitement of big towns, bright lights and lots of glamorous people. In an effort to appease his wife’s desires, Dr. Bovary moves them to a larger (but still regional) town where he has to rebuild his business. Emma is in the early stages of pregnancy, which it seems she doesn’t really want.

Of course, the town isn’t big enough, or exciting enough for her and she finds solace in Leon, a young man studying to be a lawyer. He wants to be a poet and live in Paris and so they are relatively kindred souls. A small respite to her discontent is found with the birth of her daughter but she quickly realises she is not the maternal type. Leon and Emma meet and talk regularly but eventually he leaves as he cannot bear to be so close (and yet not close) to her.

In the meantime Emma is showing her spendthrift temperament and spends more than she has on lavish furnishings for their home. She feels an exciting glow when a handsome and rich man, Rodolphe, arrives in the neighbourhood and pays her attention. In short order she and Rodolphe are having a torrid affair. Once again her need for passion and excitement is underlined and even though Rodolphe is quite enamoured of his new mistress, he becomes wary of her unwavering devotion. Emma plans for them to run away together but he stops this foolhardy plan at the last moment.

Once again, her passion thwarted, she goes into depression. In his concern Charles seeks additional medical help for his wife and borrows money from the local moneylender who advises him of Madame Bovary’s already large bill.

Not wanting to think badly of his pretty young wife he doesn’t reprimand her spending, but arranges a night at the theatre in Rouen and there she sees her first ‘fling’, Leon, looking dapper on his way to the theatre. She is mesmerized by him and soon she manages to arrange piano lessons in Rouen where she and Leon can have their clandestine meetings. Rodolphe returns after some time to the village but neither he or she go out of their way to meet.

In the process of her affair with Leon, she manages to further inflict debt upon her unsuspecting and trusting husband and the debt becomes so large that the moneylender on-sells the debt to even larger sharks who charge a fortune in interest and threaten to repossess their house and all their belongings.

In an awakening of her situation, desperation sets in and she visits Leon attempting (by using her womanly wiles) to get him to steal money for her. He refuses. Then she sees a lawyer who is rather disgusting and wants, of course, HER, in return for paying off her debt. This time she refuses. Then onto Rodolphe who announces that he can’t help her – he is penniless himself. In shock that she can’t coerce someone to rescue her from the hole she has dug for herself, sees childishly sees that death is her only escape.

After managing to eat a handful of arsenic, she returns home but her illness is soon apparent, confirmed by the pharmacist. Nothing can be done and she dies a quite painful death. Her husband continues to see only her fragility and the good side of her nature and is crushed by her death.

Having not read the novel, I can’t say whether the characters were truly portrayed and if there was further depth to Emma, for example, than was visible from this production. Therefore my reaction to this was that I wanted to give Emma a good shaking! Her character was portrayed as one who consistently went overboard in her desires. Was the book written as a moral “beware” or was it a story of a girl who never really grew up and only wanted what she couldn’t have?

I saw the leads play the parts thus: Frances O’Conner played Emma’s character as a spoiled and rebellious child with her unquenched desire for ‘more’. Hugh Bonneville played Charles quietly, lovingly and with dignity. Hugh Dancy as Leon had a restless fire in the first part of the film, but looked a bit blank in the second half. Greg Wise played Rodolphe roguishly although sometimes flatly. Charles Bovary’s mother is played by Eileen Atkins and I think that she secretly relished her part – it is played with much gusto.

Given the frustration I felt with Emma’s character, I don’t think I could bear to watch this again!

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