Tag Archives: Adaptations

“Madame Bovary” (2014)–a Film Review

14 Jun
Madame Bavary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia page for this image for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014), a film by Sophie Barthes, stars Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary, the iconic woman created by Flaubert in his 1857 novel. Wasikowska’s name has appeared on this blog before, when she excelled in two other roles based on Fictional 100 characters: Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland. A little older now, she succeeds once again in embodying the unhappily married Madame Bovary.

As in Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre film, this film opens with a scene of Wasikowska running outdoors, in desperate flight from something. Both films then proceed to tell their stories in flashback. Wasikowska can certainly fill the screen with her resolute quiet; whereas as Jane Eyre this denoted her discretion and strongly principled character, as Emma Bovary, her quiet masks her restless, troubled inner life and her felt need for growing deceptions.  The first changes, though, are not hidden but very visible in her acquisition–on credit–of new stylish clothes for herself and furnishings for the house she shares with her benign, country-doctor husband Charles. At first, she rebuffed the insinuating offers of Monsier Lheureux (l’heureux means “the happy one”), who tempted her to borrow from him for his expensive goods; his success at leading her into debt represents her first seduction.  The romantic affairs that will follow, with “The Marquis” and Léon, are an outgrowth of this first fall from innocence.  She craves the romance of luxury and love, hoping to replace the emptiness and disappointment she found in the stifling constriction of Yonville and her confining marriage. She can hardly breathe, and so her restraint and quiet demeanor break open, becoming in the end a frantic rush to destruction.

This film departs markedly from previous films and especially from Flaubert’s novel. Several crucial elements are missing:

  • Berthe, the child of Emma and Charles, does not appear here. There is no mention of her having a child at all. In the novel, this fact serves to underline another area of life in which Emma could find no satisfaction. Flaubert’s Emma was unable to love or bond with her small daughter, a further wound to her marriage, which made her susceptible to falling in love with other men that crossed her path. Emma’s tragic ending is also more poignant because of the daughter she leaves behind.
  • Rodolphe Boulanger is subsumed in the character of the Marquis d’Andervilliers who gives a ball early in the novel. It made more sense in the novel that farming landowner Rodolphe would be speaking (and flirting) with Emma at an agricultural fair.
  • Likewise, the village of Tostes and the town of Yonville are merged. This misses that Charles was sensitive enough to Emma’s unhappiness to move to a larger, albeit still rural, setting for their life together.  However, it is understandable that the screenplay for a two-hour film must make these kinds of abbreviations of plot.
  • In Rouen, Emma and Léon rendezvous in the Cathedral and take a carriage to a room to make love; however, this director chose not to show us one of the novel’s most famous scenes: in which the couple make love in the closed carriage itself, as it circles around the city; Flaubert brilliantly suggests the passionate embraces inside by the sole detail of Emma’s ungloved hand in the window of the jostling carriage.
  • The pharmacist Monsieur Homais’s character and behavior is sketched so roughly that viewers may not understand that he is in competition with the new doctor in town for patients, which motivates his insistence that Charles attempt a risky operation on a local boy. He is friend to neither Charles nor Emma.
  • Finally, this film chooses to have Emma die alone in the forest after she has taken poison, thereby missing some of the most important scenes in the novel, and the only ones that hint at any rapprochement of the couple and a sort of redemption, in the midst of tragedy.  In Flaubert’s treatment, Emma ingests a fatal dose of arsenic but takes several days to succumb, during which time she tries to comfort Charles, realizing perhaps the depth of his essential goodness and true love for her. “You’re good, not like the others,” she says to him.

Since I have listed elements I found missing in this adaptation, let me finish out this review by praising an aspect of the film that I found illuminating and symbolically satisfying. Twice, Emma goes to the local priest in his church in Yonville, hoping for some sort of guidance and comfort–neither of which she finds.  The first time was especially telling: all the while she is trying to talk to him, a group of unruly children are running in the small sanctuary and the priest interrupts her to reprimand them. After he offers a few, insufficient words urging her to be happy with the roof over her head and food (and a good fellow for a husband), he sends her away, excusing himself to “get these very devils ready for Communion.”  Right in front of him was a troubled young woman, being assailed by devils of her own, tempted by the Devil himself (in the form of Lheureux) and her own passions, and he couldn’t see it. She was the one who needed some real communion with grace–a compassionate confessor and some wise words of faith to strengthen her–and this priest had little to give her.  If only she could have encountered a Monsieur Myriel such as appeared in the path of Jean Valjean at exactly the time when he needed him!  In Emma, Flaubert portrayed some of the cracks that were appearing in traditional faith during the 19th century. His villain Homais was an atheist, and it would take more than good will and going through the motions of religion to stand up to the spiritual crisis of the people at that time (or any time!).  Sophie Barthes handles these scenes between the priest and Emma with illuminating clarity for the audience, although Emma is left to plunge into her own darkness without any supports to grasp.

I recommend the film for Mia Wasikowska’s genuine portrayal of Emma and Rhys Ifan’s scary take on Lheureux. He recently played a secretive, but loyal Mycroft Holmes in the Elementary series for TV, but he is truly sinister here. The film is visually beautiful, punctuated by Emma’s stunning costumes, many of them in a fiery orange.

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Breakage and Mending in “Anna Karenina” (2012): A review of the film by Joe Wright

4 Dec

Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 

Annakarenina2012poster

Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it.   For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too).  That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well.  The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s  technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film.  In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!”  And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions.  Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor.  Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.

The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout?  But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.

Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly.  Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness.  Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.

The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…

As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010).  But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her.  Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose.  In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.

I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions.  For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech.  Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly.  Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.)  Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.

Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail.  Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.

 

“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (2)

25 Jul

Arabian Nights and Days: A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies, Doubleday,  1995. (Originally published 1979 in Arabic)

Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 2011.

“Shéhérezade” (ballet, 1910), choreography by Mikhail Fokine, The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky [DVD], Kultur, 2002.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade/ Russian Easter Overture [CD]. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting. Telarc, 2001.

In my previous post, reviewing Marina Warner’s exciting new work of cultural criticism, Stranger Magic, I promised to discuss  a few examples of retellings that continue to expand Scheherazade’s legacy. The  corpus of such retellings and variations is truly a measureless “sea of stories,” to borrow a bit of the title from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an illustrious example of this genre of storytelling art. One reader of my review of Warner, Ray Wilcockson, cited Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), a collection of Stevenson’s earliest stories that flowed from his own excitement over reading the Arabian Nights and which adapted its connected structure for his own modern tales. Warner mentions Stevenson, along with many other writers whose work has been prompted and inspired by the Arabian Nights. She recommends Robert Irwin’s excellent survey of such works in his chapter, “Children of the Nights” (in his book, The Arabian Nights: A Companion).

I will write about two books, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and Whatever Gets You Through the Night by Andrei Codrescu.  These two caught my attention because of their focus on Scheherazade herself and their further exploration of the frame story of The Arabian Nights. I will also consider the most famous musical exposition of the character of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korskov’s (1888) symphonic suite, and how the ballet later choreographed to that music diverged from the composer’s conception. 

Arabian_nights_and_days_-_mahfouz_251x400

The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobelist in literature,  is probably best known for his Cairo Trilogy (in Arabic; published in English with the titles Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street). I was delighted to read his later novel Arabian Nights and Days, which is a sophisticated retelling of the Nights’ frame story and some of its important tales.  Mahfouz refashions the stories to bring new insight into the characters of Shahrzad and Shahriyar (as they are spelled in Denys Johnson-Davies’ spare, yet mellifluous translation); they must truly grapple with the implications of all that gone before the moment when Shahrzad’s storytelling begins. Mahfouz connects each tale to the one that follows with seamless logic and suspense, and he brings greater depth even to such figures as Ma’rouf the Cobbler, Ugr the Barber, and, of course, Aladdin and Sindbad. But for me, the most arresting moment came when he implicitly asked the novelistic question, how would Shahrzad feel when she achieved her “victory” over the Sultan? His examination of this question plumbs new depths latent in one of the most well-known stories in world literature.

Before we see Shahrzad, Mahfouz shows us her father, the sultan’s vizier Dandan.  In the three years that his daughter has been suspending Shahriyar’s death sentence with her entrancing stories, the vizier’s anxiety has not been suspended–quite the opposite. Each morning he would go to the palace, waiting to discover if this dawn would be Shahrzad’s last.  On this day, “the heart of a father quaked within him” because he knew Shahrzad had done the unthinkable–she had ended her tale and her own fate must be decided one way or the other.

Dandan found Shahriyar alone, contemplating the first hints of sunrise:  he says,”It is our wish that Shahrzad remain our wife. …Her stories are white magic…They open up worlds that invite reflection” (p. 2). When the Sultan continues, announcing that Shahrazad gave him a son and brought peace to his “troubled spirits,” the vizier wishes him happiness now and in the hereafter. This innocent blessing triggers a biting response–the Sultan dismisses the notion of happiness and puzzles over existence itself. In this way, we are given the first hint that although death is forestalled, “happily ever after” may not come as easily.

Next the vizier seeks out his daughter. Her response to her reprieve is complex and profound, even though it unfolds in a brief exchange that barely takes up two pages. Shahrzad acknowledges that by “the Lord’s mercy” her life has been spared and the young women of the city–those remaining–are no longer in peril, but at the cost of her happiness: “’I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood’” (p. 3).  The vizier protests that the Sultan now loves her and that love works miracles, but Shahrzad answers  that, “Arrogance and love do not come together in one heart” and, most devastating of all, “Whenever he approaches me I breathe the smell of blood” (p. 4).

Mahfouz has seemingly told the end at the beginning, but is it really the end? As his brilliantly refashioned cycle of tales nears its conclusion, Shahriyar becomes prominent again as the auditor of Sindbad’s tales of his voyages, told by Sindbad himself as fables of the wisdom he won along the way. Shahriyar persistently queries him as if his (Shahriyar’s) life depended on the answers. Sindbad finishes and Shahriyar retreats to his lush flower garden, pacing and remembering, his mind in turmoil and his heart gripped by weariness and disgust at his life–at the follies of life itself. He summons Shahrzad for a new dialogue–one not known to the ancient tradition but equally fateful, and full of truths as ancient as humanity. He confesses his need for repentance and reveals that he has known all along of her that “your body approaches while your heart turns away.” In a masterful stroke, Mahfouz’s Shahriyar asserts that he kept Shahrzad close to him as a reproach–“I found in your aversion a continued torment that I deserved” (p. 217). Shahrzad weeps, her heart melting perhaps for the first time in his presence, and he sees at once that this weeping means more than all the pretense of her love up to that point.  He vows to renounce his kingdom and wander in search of wisdom and meaning, leaving his son, with Shahrzad’s counsel, to rule more wisely than he did. Now it is Shahrzad’s turn to see the bitter irony of this sudden decision–“You are spurning me as my heart opens to you. …It is an opposing destiny that is mocking us” (p. 218).

I hope readers of this blog will forgive the “spoilers” I have felt necessary to include. I shall leave one last surprise unspoken–what Shahriyar discovers on his quest for truth. But I wanted to disclose this much to make clear what a tour de force this new resolution of the frame story represents. Mahfouz’s alternative frame story refuses to find Shahriyar’s healing at the point when he rescinds the order of execution. No, that will not be enough to cure a soul that has strayed so far. Shahrzad feels this in her own heart, but she has done all she can do. She carries the wounds of all the sacrificed wives who preceded her, and now she too is in need of healing. Only Shahriyar’s act of atonement1 can change the equation. And with amazing poignance, it is only at the moment when the Sultan decides to leave Shahrzad that their real love story begins. 

Codrescu_book_cover

 

NPR contributor and prolific writer Andrei Codrescu offers a retelling, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, that could hardly be more different from Mahfouz’s in tone and aims. Mahfouz is spare and restrained, recounting events and suggesting feelings and motivations with great economy. Codrescu is expansive (his Sheherezad doesn’t appear until page 46!), revelling in digression and comment, in voluminous marginal notes that can sometimes ring the main text in small type.  In his ironic, punning treatment of the stories and in his commentary, he reveals his attitudes toward the gender politics of the stories as well as the whole historical enterprise of translating and transmitting the tales. Twenty-three different epigraphs, arranged together before the main text, quote sources ranging from Wikipedia to rival translators Richard Francis Burton and Husain Haddawy to critic J. Hillis Miller to the Rolling Stone, announcing that this retelling will be openly conscious of all the textual history that has gone before.  A preface of sorts includes these observations on Sheherezade:

“We are bound to tell her story no matter what our postmodern wishes or rebellious inclinations might tell us: simply pronouncing her name invokes her. When she appears, like the Genie in the bottle of literature that she is, we must obey the order of her stories [he doesn’t]; this is the exact opposite of the Genii and Genies who are freed or imprisoned in the bottles of her characters, who must obey their liberators….” (p. 1)

This passage is characteristic of Codrescu and of the experience of reading this book: expect trenchant observations delivered with irreverence, skepticism, and a winking eye. Also expect the story will linger on lurid details of the murders of the Sultan’s previous wives and explicit description of the sexual situations implicit in the story. This text attempts to startle the reader into taking a fresh look at an old narrative tradition. Within that tradition, Codrescu aligns his sympathy more nearly with Burton, whose titillating translation, cloaked in archaic language, fed a certain late-Victorian appetite, especially his own.

Codrescu makes crucial archetypal connections between Scheherazade and figures such as Penelope and Ariadne, as in this brilliant synthesis:

“Sheherezade’s job was to be like Ariadne to make the King believe that she was showing him the way out of the labyrinth of his insecurity and cruelty, while weaving [like Penelope] at the same time a labyrinth from which he could never escape to kill again.” (p. 97)

The net that is woven is an erotic one, but oddly Sheherezade herself is sidelined in favor of her sister, Dinarzad. The storytelling ménage à trois becomes a sexual pas de deux between the two listeners, Sharyar and Dinarzad, whose dalliance fails to reach its climax just as each story’s ending is postponed.

Codrescu offers what he calls the “unpopular” ending, one in which he posits there was no baby, no reconciliation of the Sultan to women, and, therefore, no pardon for his Sheherezade; he prefers to believe that the stories had no end and we can listen in whenever we choose.  In fact we need to listen, trancelike, he argues, because we cannot face our lives without entertainment. Thus, he concludes with an extended meditation on media culture where we are “angry mass-Sharyars” and “terrified when you are silent” (p. 173).  All of this does end up being intriguing and a very modern deconstructive performance, but I confess that I preferred Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days, which explored more deeply the redemptive core of the Nights, while preserving the echoes of the imaginative realms that gave it birth.

Rimsky-korsakov_cd_cover

 

I was going to write at length about Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeously melodic symphonic suite of Scheherazade and compare it with Mikhail Fokine’s popular Scheherazade ballet of 1910, set to some of its music, and with a new libretto by Léon Bakst and Fokine. (Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow was apparently quite unhappy with the rearrangement of the score.) Despite its name,  the ballet dramatizes only events occurring before the intervention of Scheherazade, namely, the infidelity of the Sultan’s first wife. Most of the dancing is a sensuous, extended duet between Zobeide2 (the wife) and a “Golden Slave”–in Fokine’s Ballet Russes choreography, this role was a vehicle for the superlative genius of Vaslav Nijinsky.

Nijinsky_in_scheherazade2_254x400

 

Unfortunately, Scheherazade’s recurring narration from bed does not lend itself easily to having her dance!   Ahh, but I see the night grows short, this post is already very long, and I must stop for now and send you to meet the musical Scheherazade for yourself in the lyrical space beyond words…

Notes:

  1.  In this connection, I highly recommend Phil Cousineau’s Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement (Jossey-Bass, 2011), which collects essays from diverse authors on ways to move from words of repentance or forgiveness toward atoning actions which may potentially heal both parties.
  2.  I recommend a performance of Fokine’s ballet in The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (DVD), but be aware that the back-cover text incorrectly identifies the principal female role (danced by Svetlana Zakharova) as Shehérézade instead of Zobeide.

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