Desperate to escape the dullness of provincial life, a young married woman pursues forbidden fantasies through a series of indiscreet seductions and adulterous affairs. Based on the acclaimed novel that transformed the Romantic era, MADAME BOVARY stars Mia Wasikowska (JANE EYRE; ALICE IN WONDERLAND), Ezra Miller (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER), Rhys Ifans(VANITY FAIR), Laura Carmichael(Downton Abbey),and Paul Giamatti(ROMEO & JULIET).
Having a wife who loves period pieces and films of that nature, I signed up to review 'Madame Bovary' once I saw the trailer and its 1800s setting. I figured, Why not? I can bear with two hours of pretentiousness in return for some brownie points. Although she had not heard of this particular adaptation of the 1856 novel by Gustave Flaubert, I figured it would be something that my wife would enjoy. Expecting the standard hoity-toity societal drama that comes with the period, I was actually impressed to discover that 'Madame Bovary' is hardly the standard period piece.
Not knowing anything about the story, I judged 'Madame Bovary' to be about a young woman who didn't fit the societal norm; one that was rough around the edges and would stubbornly reject the love of a good man; one like something out of a typical Jane Austen novel. In reality, 'Madame Bovary' is more like a modern tale than the stereotype that I assumed it would be. In story, themes and morals, it tackles some very real and heavy issues that weren't openly talked about in the time in which it was written and is set – although they are quite frequently mentioned in today's blunt and straightforward world where nothing is taboo.
Wasikowska stars as Emma, a young naïve French girl who is raised and educated in a proper boarding school. The society-created plan of leaving school one day and being married off to a wonderful stranger has been instilled in her mind since she was a child. With her upcoming marriage being arranged, she can only hope that he, Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), is a good person.
When the time comes, Emma leaves the parish like a little kid going to Disneyland for the first time: giddy with excitement, naïve to what lies ahead, and hopeful that it will live up to her fantastic expectations. Upon leaving the school, she's immediately married off and the wedding party seems as perfect as a sheltered little girl could imagine: her father gifts them with a small and expensive heirloon set of silverware, Charles is kind to her, et cetera – but we quickly get a brief flash that Emma's expected dreamy marriage is not at all what she wanted it to be. "The first time" carries such lofty expectations that they are rarely met if the participants are not prepared. Emma is definitely unprepared and her new husband certainly doesn't put much effort into making it anything special. From the disrobing to the all-too-brief act itself, the Bovary's sex life is boring and joyless. Because of Charles' selfishness and lack of effort, it's treated like a task, or a chore. From the look on Emma's face during their first should-be intimate encounter, we see that she's starting to realize that her fantasies are not realistic. Sadly, her dreams of perfection start to crumble during the honeymoon and progressively decline downhill from there.
Almost immediately, Emma begins to make up for her disappointment by filling her life with things; things like fancy clothes, jewelry and other meaningless material goods that the once-naïve child inside believed would come with adulthood. Borrowing against credit, she starts to craft her ideal world and lifestyle with the mindset of "if Charles isn't going to give it to me, then I'll give it to myself." At first, her purchases are pretty harmless. In fact, one can even argue that she's unaware of the impact of her actions – but it leads her down a slippery slope that opens the door to other vain obsessions.
Being an obviously unhappy and quite beautiful young woman, others seek to take advantage of sheltered little Emma in a few different ways. A local sly merchant (Rhys Ifans), who basically plays the character of the devil, helps her obtain a taste for the things that she cannot possess. It starts off with clothing, then moves to jewelry and other valuable objects, but ultimately dabbles in things that affect her status within their small town and her marriage. Affairs begin with men who possess the qualities and characteristics of the childhood fantasies that she entertained. Taking the devils bait, Emma is lured into an unsustainable lifestyle. And as we've come to know through other books and movies, you can't play with the devil's fire forever without getting burned.
Most period pieces are pretty fluffy. They deal with lightweight content and carry an air of melodrama; however, 'Madame Bovary' is another thing. It's a cautionary tale, a morality play, and a social commentary – and a surprisingly timeless one at that – that deals with heavy topics that are of true concern even today. Gorgeously shot and very well acted, if you're up for a dark and unhappy dissection of the reality versus the expectations that come with marriage and adulthood, then you'll definitely want to give this little period piece a chance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Alchemy has placed 'Madame Bovary' on a Region A BD-25 disc and placed it in a standard blue Elite keepcase. All of the pre-menu content on the disc is skippable, including the FBI warning, the Alchemy vanity reel and the trailers for 'Fading Gigolo,' 'Elsa & Fred,' 'Welcome to Me' and 'Accidental Love.'
Despite landing on a small BD-25 Blu-ray disc, 'Madame Bovary' features a great 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer. Although it's not perfect, at least it's not riddled with the compression flaws that you'd expect from a disc this size – which is most likely due to the fact that there's not a single space-filling special feature included on the disc. The only of the expected problems to arise was banding – and even then it's only limited to the movie's opening 'Alchemy' reel. Aside from that solitary instance, bands are non-existent within the movie itself.
'Madame Bovary' kicks off with a fired up scene of Emma in distress as she emotionally runs through a damp forest on a highly overcast afternoon. The vibrancy of the green dress that she wears makes the naturally green surroundings seem lifeless. In comparison, the greenery doesn't appear to be all that green. It's with that same gusto that the color palette is wonderfully used to accent the overall film. In the beginning, before Emma metaphorically colors her clothes, she wears a simply white wardrobe. Amidst the neutral color scheme, it adds a childlike innocence to her character. After the wedding, she repeatedly dons a dark navy blue dress. While colored, it's not vibrant and it's definitely not eye-catching like the dresses she wears once the affairs begin. It's after that character flaw kicks in that colorization is impressively used to accent her new character. Once featuring a pale and lifeless fleshtone, the color that surrounds her warmly brightens her up.
Costuming also makes for a fine example of the amount of detail to be seen within the film. The clarity and resolution of 'Madame Bovary' is solid, allowing the film's fine Oscar-worthy design to make itself abundantly clear. You can visually feel the textures of just about every visible piece of material within the film. The finest of details are present, allowing even me (a layman when it comes to costume) to spot the insanely fine and unique fabric patterns within the clothing.
There's one flaw that pops up from time to time that undermines each of the strengths that I previously listed. I assume the blame to be equal parts due to the BD-25 disc and the low-budget shoot. Some nighttime shots – both indoors and outdoors – feature very low lighting. Some even seem to have no artificial lighting at all. During some (not all) of those instances, low production value shines through, revealing highly wishy-washy black levels that can excessively crush in one shot, only to have the contrast blown out in the next shot with should-be blacks appearing gray. It's an eye-catching nuisance when it happens, but fortunately it doesn't happen too often.
What a delightful surprise it is to pop in a low-budget independent film like 'Madame Bovary,' only to discover that it's got an absolutely impressive and consistently active 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track. The first six minutes of the film are basically dialog-less. This serves as a great introduction to the perfect mix that lies ahead. It causes you to notice, focus and pay attention to the sound early-on. After six minutes of training, your ears will be tuned in so well that you'll frequently say "wow" under your breath throughout the rest of the film.
The element to kick off the six-minute start is in the area of environmental effects. Before we see Emma angrily walking through the forest, we hear the most dynamic birds, snapping twigs, rolling thunder, light rain and breezy wind from all around. The activity of all channels is consistent and never dies off. When Emma comes into the picture, we hear her heavy panting and frantic breathing. It's meant to be unnerving and unsettling, which clearly come through thanks to the emphasis placed on it through mixing and volume. Dialog and vocals are always well- and fittingly-mixed. And, lastly, the music element kicks in when we just back to the beginning of the narrative. Featuring a piano, an upright bass and melodic strings, the score is absolutely beautiful. Mixed throughout all channels just as strongly as the surround effects, all scoring carries a pleasant and mood-setting characteristic. The balance is so strong and fills the space so well that it's impossible to distinguish from which speakers the music emits. It literally fills the space so well that you cannot hear the distance gaps between your speakers. The impressive nature of this lossless track is rare.
There's not a single special feature to be found on this disc.
Period pieces are not my top choice; however, there's quite a bit to 'Madame Bovary' that breaks the stereotypical mold. Mia Wasikowska and her supporting cast excel in this heavy drama that tackles the unspoken-of societal and marital issues that existed in the 1800s. Written during the period in which it's set, it's enteresting even today because the same issues, which are now highly recognized, are just as relevant as ever. This is a period piece that could successfully function 100 percent on its own no matter the period in which it's set. The themes and morals will always be relevant. With darker content than we're used to getting with in 1800s countryside settings, 'Madame Bovary' may not be the type of film that you'll want to revisit with frequency, but it's definitely great enough that it deserves to be seen. It's gorgeously shot and the video quality does a pretty solid job bringing its beauty onto Blu-ray. Some flaws exist, but not enough to bog it down. Unexpectedly, the lossless audio mixing is absolutely brilliant. Completely dynamic in every way, there's literally no room for improvement in that area. The special features, on the other hand, are lacking. And by "lacking" I really mean "non-existent." Not a single special feature is included. Luckily, the film and it's presentation stand upright entirely on their own and still get my recommendation.