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In 2009, Sophie Barthes made her directorial debut with the underrated science-fiction movie Cold Souls. The Charlie Kaufman-esque narrative saw a struggling, middle-aged actor (Paul Giamatti as himself) put his soul into storage in an attempt to find new inspiration. Now, six years and one baby later, the French-American filmmaker returns with a completely different film: Madame Bovary is an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel, one of the great classics of French literature. The result is an impressive period drama with beautiful images captured by Barthes’ cinematographer/husband Andrij Parekh and a stellar cast featuring Giamatti, Ezra Miller, Rhys Ifans, and Logan Marshall-Green. In the title role, she cast Mia Waskiowska who delivers a brilliant, mature performance as Emma Bovary.
The story follows its protagonist through several years of her struggles. Bored with her marriage to a young, lethargic doctor, she refuses to settle for a quiet life. Her longing for romance and self-fulfillment lead to extramarital affairs which are ultimately yet another step on the path to tragedy. At last year’s London Film Festival, I had the chance to chat to Sophie Barthes about Madame Bovary, her passion for Flaubert’s novel and its relevance for modern audiences.
On the surface, Madame Bovary is a completely different film than Cold Souls. Was it a conscious departure from the sci-fi genre towards period drama?
“In a way, actually I discovered talking with a journalist yesterday, who really loved both films, that there is a subconscious theme in all my films. I also made a short about a woman and a box of happiness [Happiness, 2006], and she doesn’t know what to do with the happiness, so she returns the box. And then he realized that there is this sentiment about the fear of emptiness and the fear of not knowing what to do, the freedom of the happiness and what to do with it. So Madame Bovary is suffering from an empty existential crisis. In my first film, he [Paul Giamatti] was so scared of having too much soul that he takes it away and then he feels very empty. But you never know as a filmmaker because you don’t know it, it’s an unconscious thing in your work.”
There is a certain loneliness in the characters as well.
“Yes, Madame Bovary was one of my favorite books since when I was a teenager. In the beginning, I didn’t even want to look at the screenplay. I got it from my agency and I thought: ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I mean [Jean] Renoir [Vicente] Minelli and [Claude] Chabrol tried, but then I was curious to see how it was adapted and I really liked it. I could relate to her.”
You’ve mentioned the earlier adaptations of the book. Did you go back to those films or did you try to do your own thing?
“No. I had seen the Chabrol version, so I didn’t want to rewatch it, because sometimes if you make a remake, you decide not to do something because they’ve done it. That is bad, because you shouldn’t define yourself just against what has been made. I haven’t seen the Renoir or the Minelli, but I have seen the version by Sokurov, who made a very strange one. The thing is, you have over 500 pages of a book and only two hours on screen, so you have to make choices. One of the most drastic choices was to say that she is not going to have a child. I didn’t want it to be cliched that she is just a bad mother. She is very ambivalent about her motherhood, so if she had a child, you would have to fully develop her relationship with the child. I decided to focus on other aspects of her life that is already very complicated.”
What aspects of the text do you think are most relevant for modern audiences?
“I think it’s the consumerism, because I live in New York and I’m appalled at the consumerism of my generation. I arrived at Columbia University and I received eight credit cards. I had never had a credit card in my life and they push you to consume and to consume, and then you are stuck in that society because you have to pay your debts. So it’s like Monsieur Lheureux is everywhere. It’s amazing that Flaubert envisioned this in the mid-nineteenth century. He could see what capitalism was going to become and what consumerism is going to do to women. This is very modern. It sounds pretentious, but it’s not, I swear: Madame Bovary is not just a character, she’s a little piece of the human condition. This woman could be alive today and she would have the same troubles because she projects: she wants her husband to be successful, but he doesn’t want that. The same goes for the lovers: she projects that Leon is romantic. He’s not. He’s just a guy who wants to have a career. She would do the same thing today, she projects about love. She’s a self-destructive person. Today she would be in a similar position; she would probably be on medication.”
Finally, how did you go about casting the film?
“I had seen all of Mia Wasikowska’s work and I love her as an actress, because she is very young, but very mature. She’s a real actress. It’s all about the craft, she’s not a movie star. I had seen In Treatment, Albert Nobbs, Jane Eyre and I thought she was not going to want to do another period film. But she read the script and she loved it. She likes to break this image that she is a very angelical, nice, pure young girl. She wanted to play a woman and show a very monstrous side to her. For her as an actress, I think it’s interesting to dive into the dark shadows. She was really enthusiastic about the role, so I thought it was great. I think the camera loves her, because she has different layers; she has this enigmatic thing about her.”
You just need to see a close-up of her walking through the woods in order to understand these complex emotions.
“Yeah, you just want to watch her. She moves an eye a little bit and it’s all in there. It’s really interesting because of a lot of actresses of her generation are beautiful, but I don’t feel anything. Mia has it all: she has the beauty, she has the inner life, she has the sophistication, and I just like her as a person. She is really easy to work with, because she doesn’t have a big ego. She takes directions very well, she is very intuitive, she doesn’t intellectualize. She is really incredible.”
I particularly enjoyed Rhys Ifans’ performance, always in between nice and nasty.
“He took it as almost sociopathic. I love him so much. He is well trained, he is a theater actor. He can do anything. His range of emotions is a pleasure to work with. Very sweet, very well educated actor. I was so blessed that for my second film I got all those great actors.”