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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Flaubert Flipped

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday July 9, 06:50 pm
Updated Madame Bovary aims blame at patriarchy

 MADAME BOVARY

Opens Roxy (opens Friday 17)

3.5/5

Few literary classics have endured the radical change of perception that Madame Bovary has since its publication in 1856. Once heralded as one of the greatest novels ever written, the plot has taken a pounding in modern times (although the prose and style remain breathtaking). And fair enough: Gustave Flaubert’s depiction of women as mercurial and frivolous is patronizing at best.

The most interesting aspect of this new film adaptation is the fact that it was written and directed by a woman. Sophie Barthes (whose only previous feature was the Kaufman-esque Cold Souls) does a very good job at explaining how Emma Bovary’s mind works, and how her arrested development can be traced directly to the patriarchal society that suppresses her.

In case you managed to skip it in high school, here’s a summary: More in love with the idea of marrying a doctor than with the actual man in question, Emma (Mia Wasikowska) weds Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and sets shop in the small town of Yonville in France. Soon it becomes clear that country life doesn’t suit her at all, and that Charles is more “this is as good as he’ll ever be” than “up and coming” when it comes to his medical talents.

Frustrated that her existence isn’t living up to her adolescent expectations, Emma spends extravagantly and embarks on an affair with the caddish Marquis d’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus). At the same time, she sets her husband up for a fall by pushing him to perform a surgery he’s not at all equipped to execute.

The story has been streamlined considerably. Gone is Emma’s daughter, and her second lover, Leon, is reduced to a minimal role (perhaps because Ezra Miller is so obviously miscast). The antihero’s complicated relationship with religion also goes undeveloped, though it’s not clear if that was done on purpose or not.

Wasikowska is subtly superb: Emma is obviously flawed, but never willfully malicious. In fact, she’s depicted as intelligent and sensitive, very much like a child who never had the chance to grow up before getting married. Her compulsive shopping can be traced to her desire for fulfillment, explaining the equivalency, in her mind, of bankruptcy and death.

Director Barthes tackles the story with clinical detachment: We may understand Bovary’s behaviour, but we’re never rooting for her. The movie is more damning in its treatment of the male characters: Emma is raised believing that life’s ultimate goal is to get married, meaning that what happens after that had never before crossed her mind. The men around her treat her as decoration — even her devout husband Charles, who’s tragically unable to read her. Emma’s lack of worldliness makes her easy to manipulate, from her rakish lovers to the merchant who turns her into a shopaholic.

The smartest decision in this adaptation was to not take the book at face value. That’s not to say it’s not a carefully curated picture — the attention to detail is so scrupulous that the debt collector even looks like a buzzard. The production design is exquisite, and the hand-held camera work is the right option for a movie willing to get down and dirty.

 

SELF/LESS

Cineplex

2/5

B.C. native Ryan Reynolds sure seems like a nice guy, and he’s even given indications that he can be a good actor (Buried, The Voices) in the right role. Yet he continues to star in vehicles doomed to fail (R.I.P.D., Turbo, The Change-Up and most tragically, Green Lantern). Now he tries his luck with a mid-budget, less-fun-than-it-should-be body swap drama.

Self/Less kicks off with Damian (Ben Kingsley), a filthy rich developer who’s facing impending death (Reynolds doesn’t even appear until around 20 minutes in). Unwilling to let go, the millionaire puts his fate in the hands of an unscrupulous scientist named Albright (Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game) who promises him eternal life.

Shedding” (the technique Albright uses) consists of transferring the millionaire’s mind into a young man’s body (Reynolds) by using electricity (just go with it). The operation is a success, except for recurrent flashbacks hinting at the original owner’s former life.

Interesting idea, but Reynolds doesn’t even bother to ape Kingsley’s mannerisms or personality: If it wasn’t explained a tiresomely large number of times, you’d never know they were supposed to be the same personality.

The theme (is it worth it to live forever if you lose your soul?) and expository dialogue leave no room for subtlety, let alone any space for a bit of humour to sneak in — which is kind of a waste, considering that Reynolds is much better at comedy than action.

I wasn’t expecting much from this movie, but one big letdown is that Self/less is largely lacking in visual flair. Director Tarsem Singh has long been known for his rich palette, even when he’s given barely serviceable scripts (Immortals, Mirror Mirror, The Cell). But Self/less is drab and sterile, a pale shadow of Singh’s most vibrant compositions.

Maybe he wasn’t very invested in the project, or maybe he just gave up after reading the script. Either way, audiences will be able to relate.

 

BIG GAME

Roxy

2.5/5

Other than Quentin Tarantino, most filmmakers want Samuel L. Jackson to play a “Samuel L. Jackson type.” His persona (a cranky, quippy badass) is so strongly established that Jackson is rarely allowed to stretch beyond it.

Big Game definitely wasn’t the right venue to try something new. It’s a movie that should have been a spoof, but it’s taken seriously by most of those involved, Big Game uses Jackson as an Obama stand-in: Principled, but kind of a wimp. And he’s not even the hero of the movie: That honour goes to taciturn 12-year old Oskari (Onni Tommila), a wannabe hunter on his first solo outing.

Here’s the plot, such as it is: A resentful secret service agent and a bored Saudi millionaire team up to take down Air Force One over the Finish woodlands, so they can hunt down the POTUS like a helpless deer. Luckily for him, Oskari finds him first and offers him a chance to outsmart the baddies.

The Finnish portion of Big Game is entertaining enough, mostly thanks to Oskari. As the newest member of a group of outdoorsy, manly Finns, the boy is required to prove his worth by killing an animal without using firearms. Oskari is methodical, thoughtful and skilled, and sees the fact that he must save the President as more a nuisance than a task to be proud of.

Unfortunately, director Jalmari Helander decided to beef up the film with an American war-room populated by cardboard characters. Their actions have little to no effect on the main storyline, the intrigue is nonsensical and nobody would miss it if it wasn’t there.

Big Game isn’t without laughs, but they’re more of the “fish out of water” variety than spoof. Considering how outlandish it gets and how close Big Game is to equally ludicrous fare (White House Down, Air Force One and other POTUS-as-superhero romps), this was a golden opportunity to send up the entire premise, but that opportunity is mostly missed.

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