Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Sophie Barthes’ ‘Madame Bovary’

Chris Palazzolo is puzzled by Madame Bovary, directed by Sophie Barthes, 2015

Mia Wasikowska in Madame Bovary (2014)
Mia Wasikowska in Madame Bovary (2014)

There is something hard at the heart of Sophie Barthes’ Madame Bovary, like a dense, knotted compacted mass in a mound of earth that jams up chainsaws and dents bulldozer blades; it stops you from getting deeper into it. But why would one want to get deeper into this film? Madame Bovary is Madame Bovary – it’s had many screen adaptations over the last century, from Vincente Minnelli’s ‘frame’ version in 1949 (Flaubert, on trial for obscenity, tells the story through his testimony), to Charle’s Chabrol’s version in 1991, from sturdy BBC and French tv adaptations, to Luis Buñuel’s satire Belle de Jour (1968)  – everyone knows the sad story of Emma Bovary and her ‘good marriage.’ So why would viewers want to go deeper?

But then why make another movie if that’s the conclusion a viewer’s going to come to? Because the solidity at the heart of it is in actual fact a transparency; there is nothing new that a mere movie can say about Madame Bovary except to follow faithfully the essential lines of the story, disappear itself in the process, and so leave on display the source text which is forever new and forever perfect. This isn’t the first of recent European literary adaptations whose ‘authentic’ period details, and narrative faithfulness to the source shuns interpretation (a gesture hidden behind the assumption that ‘we all know the story already’) but which paradoxically relies on the ‘aura’ of the source to draw us back to the new version in the hope of unlocking something still hidden in it. Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) was an example of this kind of movie, as well as Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (also 2005). Their purpose seems to be to fix a single way of approaching the source novels; this is the right way of telling the story, this is the period it’s set in, they speak this way, and clothes and settings look like this. In other words they are correctives, reminding us, who may have seen the earlier ‘interpretative’ versions, that film is a secondary and derivative art the duty of which is to align our gaze, in a move that is transparent, onto the source wherein lies all that is new and hidden and wondrous. These films are not not good; their production values are usually excellent. But I like to think that cinema is (or can be) real art, whereas the whole aesthetic purpose here seems to be that of deference, cinematic vassals genuflecting to their Master Texts. I’m probably being a little unfair; Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, despite its occasional air of hand-wringy Uriah Heep type ‘umbleness, is a fine movie. But it is so because, sadly, the intensity of its worship banishes all the comedy from the story. It is an interpretation in other words, and so a work of art. I can’t say the same for Barthes’ film because it is too curled in, too mute, too cowled in its deference for me to get close to it.

While it is a worthy thing to direct the attention of modern screen-saturated viewers onto great works of literature, the means – deflection off an opaque and blunt literality, not unlike redirecting a course of water by putting a concrete block in its way – is worthy of analysis too. But such questions go to the policies underpinning funding decisions of European governments concerning how to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of their nations. I often find the end credits of these films more interesting than the actual films (probably because the films have gone to such heroic lengths to not be interesting). I find myself wondering who audits all the different ministries, companies, funding bodies and estates which go to put these films together? Czech film crews, Belgian post-production companies, Russian orchestras, Danish and Finnish tax shelters (accountancy firms), French heritage trusts; work is spread right across the EU. And that’s a worthy thing too.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

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