Passionately working to achieve your dreams can often be a positive process for people as they strive to improve their lives. But longing and aiming to better your own position in society can also have negative consequences, especially if the actions you take to achieve your goals evoke unfavorable emotions in the people who deeply care about you. French director Sophie Barthes intriguingly realized her goal of releasing her film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s acclaimed novel, ‘Madame Bovary,’ after several years of financial setbacks. The filmmaker’s dream of bringing her version of the story to the screen came true when the drama was released in theaters on June 12, and will also be distributed on Blu-ray and DVD on August 4. But the well-known title character long battled her disappointment of not reaching a high place in society that she always dreamed of, which ended in disastrous results.
‘Madame Bovary’ follows the quiet and reserved title character, Emma (Mia Wasikowska), as she grows from a young woman at finishing school to marrying the honest and noble Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). The only time she shows any true emotion on her wedding day is when she says goodbye to her devoted, widowed father, Monsieur Rouault (Olivier Gourmet). As Emma begins to settle into her unfamiliar life, everything seems strange to her, and she struggles with accepting her new role as a wife.
But Emma soon starts rebelling against the modest lifestyle of being the wife of the country doctor, as it doesn’t bring any of the romance, glory and wealth she originally imagined. In an effort to try and achieve some of the excitement and prosperity she so ardently longs for, Emma decides to engage in affairs. While she declines the offer from her first potential suitor, legal clerk Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller), she then quickly starts an affair with Marquis d’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall Green).
As Emma is then consumed by her desire to accumulate more possessions, she’s encouraged by the lustful merchant Lhereux (Rhys Ifans) to spend more money on material goods than her husband can afford. Her aspiration to live a more lavish lifestyle, and her unwillingness to fully commit to her marriage, leaves Charles heartbroken, as he cares more about her than she does about him. As Emma’s actions continue spiraling out of control, neither she nor her husband know how to adequately improve their lives, in an effort to appease her needs.
Barthes generously took the time to talk about directing her adaptation of ‘Madame Bovary’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she was drawn to helming the drama, because not only is Flaubert one of her favorite writers, but she also liked that screenwriter Felipe Marino made Emma very young and naive, and her marriage began to spiral out of control before she began to truly live her life; how Wasikowska loved the script for the adaption after she read it, and also responded to the title character, which the director appreciated, as the actress brought a mature presence in the role; and how she treasured the visuals of the movie, particularly the costumes that were designed by Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux, as they created outfits that tell the audience stories about the characters.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new dramatic film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, ‘Madame Bovary.’ What is it about the book that convinced you to helm the movie? How did having the source material influence the way you approached directing the film?
Sophie Barthes (SB): Well, Flaubert is one of my favorite writers. I received the script for the film from my agency, William Morris. In the beginning, I thought I wasn’t going to touch the material, because I thought it was a bit ambitious for my second (feature) film.
But when I read the script, I really liked the take on the story, and the fact that she was a very young Emma. She barely had time to live her life, and it was already getting out of control. So there was a very naive side of her that attracted me to this version.
Filmmakers also like to recreate the period (in which the story is set). I really like the 19th century, and enjoyed going on the exploration of paintings, and recreating the feelings of that period overall.
SY: Felipe Marino wrote the initial draft of the script for ‘Madame Bovary,’ and you also contributed rewrites to the story. What was the process of working with him on the screenplay, particularly since he was a first-time screenwriter, as well as making contributions to the script?
SB: The film took a long time to develop-we were in pre-production for about two years. The more research I did, the more ideas I came up with to make little changes in the script. Also, the budget wasn’t initially that big, and it was difficult to raise more money, because it’s a very dark story. So we had to be more economical to help the movie get made, so I took some liberties and changed some things from the book. As a filmmaker, you have to be practical.
SY: Why did you decide to cast Mia Wasikowska in the lead title role, particularly after she previously starred in such period films as ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Albert Nobbs?’
SB: Well, I knew Mia’s work on ‘In Treatment,’ and then always followed her work after, because I was always intrigued by her. Although at times, she can be a bit ambivalent, and it can be difficult to read her emotions. But that’s interesting for a director, because she can play very ambiguous emotions. I like that serious aspect about her, and I love all her work.
Luckily she read the script and loved it. I thought she might not want to be in this film after she starred in ‘Jane Eyre,’ because I know actors don’t want to be typecast. But luckily she responded to this character. She’s very mature for her age-she was 23 when we shot the film.
I think she likes taking on challenging roles, because she doesn’t want to be an angelical presence. As an actress, she takes roles that are very challenging, and push her out of her boundaries. I’m very happy she accepted the role.
SY: How did you cast the supporting cast, decide which actors would best emphasize the men in Emma’s life, as well as their relationships?
SB: Paul Giamatti signed on very quickly, because he starred in my first film, ‘Cold Souls,’ so we have a relationship. When I first read the script, I immediately thought he would be great for the role of the Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist.
Then we went through the typical casting process for the rest of the actors. It was difficult to find someone to play Charles, because it’s a role not many actors want to play. But Henry (Lloyd-Hughes) was great, because he was very humble about playing the character. He wanted to emotionally portray Charles as truthfully as possible. I really had a great time working with him. He’s done a lot of theater and TV in the U.K. It was great when you don’t know much about a person, and then discover that they’re great for a role.
I had also seen Logan Marshall-Green in a movie that played at Cannes, the James Franco-directed drama adaptation of Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’ I really liked him in that film, and saw how he good at riding horses. So I thought he would be really good as The Marquis in this film.
SY: With the drama focusing on the title character’s relationships, how did you build the relationships between Mia and the rest of the cast? Were you able to have any rehearsal time before you began filming, to help build the characters’ backstories?
SB: We didn’t have much rehearsal time. On small, independent films, the actors arrive about two or three weeks before shooting begins. So our time was split into fitting for, and finishing, costumes. They also had to have riding lessons, and had a coach teach them about people’s posture during that time. So with all of these activities before we began shooting, we only had a little bit of time for rehearsals.
But I find that a lot of film actors who I work with don’t really enjoy rehearsals-they rather do table reads. They don’t want to show all of their characters’ emotions during rehearsals, because they lose their spontaneity once we begin shooting. They’ll look back to do the same thing that they did in rehearsal. So I think the preparation process for films is very different than for theater.
SY: Speaking of the film’s costumes, with ‘Madame Bovary’ being an independent period drama, what was the process of creating the outfits the characters would wear?
SB: The costumes were the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the film. The costume designers (Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux) have worked on a lot of period films, which take place in the 18th and 19th centuries, in France. But I started sketching ideas almost two years before we started shooting. We had an on-going dialogue about the style and the fabrics, and how every dress was there to support the journey of the character.
So what I love about the team is that they don’t just create costumes for the characters; they create dresses that tell the audience stories. They created beautiful dress, and took a lot of liberties with the fashion of that time.
We also worked a lot with the production designer (Benoît Barouh), so that the costumes are popping out. We picked greys and blues for the walls, so that the costumes really pop. So there was a nice collaboration between the production designer team and the costume designers.
SY: Also speaking of the film’s production design, with the story being set in France in the mid-1800s, what was the process of finding the filming locations, and creating how they would look?
SB: Since I’m French, I wanted to film in France, and make the production feel as authentic as possible. So we scouted a lot of locations in Normandy. But the film wasn’t shot where the book takes place, which is where Flaubert was living, north of Normandy.
We ended up shooting in a small region south of Normandy, because I fell in love with the region. The light was incredible, and the overall feel is reminiscent of the 18th century. Since the region is so preserved, we didn’t have to build a studio set. Everything we needed was already there.
SY: With the film being focused on Emma’s emotions and motivations, what was the process of working with the drama’s cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, to emphasize her actions?
SB: Well, Andrij is my husband, and he shot my first feature, as well as all of my short films. So we share a sensibility, and we work together a lot in the preparation for our projects. We go to museums together and look at paintings, which helps us choose the color palette for the films. It also helps us choose the lighting and camera movement. His lighting choices and camera movements are very naturalistic; he likes to natural light.
We’ve developed a language together while we’re working on our films, as we’ve been together for 12 years. Making movies is something we love to do together. It’s a very personal process for me, because I get to work with him. As a DP (Director of Photography), he travels a lot, since he works on many different projects. So when we work on a film together, it’s something we can do on a personal and professional level.
SY: Besides directing the film, you also made your feature film producing effort on the drama. Why did you decide to also produce ‘Madame Bovary?’ How did your responsibilities as a director and producer influence each other while you were shooting?
SB: Well, the producing process naturally came about during the filming process. I became more and more involved in raising financing for the film. The production company was having trouble raising financing because of the nature of the story. We kept getting the question, “Does she really have to kill herself at the end?”
So I then decided to help with the fundraising, and bringing as much as I could to the movie to get it made. We made it independently, which is a difficult process to get a film produced. We probably should have made it as a French film, so that we could have gotten more financial help. The route we took was hard, so I had to step in and produce it, so that we could get it made and released.
SY: ‘Madame Bovary’ has played at several film festivals around the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the drama has played at so many diverse festivals?
SB: It was great, but also nerve-racking, as we didn’t know what the reception was going to be at the screenings. The story is polarizing, because of the nature of the film, and what Emma does. It was interesting to answer questions after the screenings, because there were always angry voices about why she was doing this, and viewers would morally judge her. I think Flaubert wasn’t trying to judge what she was doing; he was just trying to picture the female condition in the 19th century.
It’s been a great journey, and I really enjoyed going to Telluride, where the film premiered, and then going on to London. We’re also going to do one more festival in Europe in the fall. The whole festival circuit has been a great experience.
SY: Now that ‘Madame Bovary’ has been released, do you have any plans for upcoming projects? Are you interested in continuing with period pieces?
SB: Well, I don’t want to be typecast as a period director. (laughs) But I am working on an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s (1913 novel), ‘The Custom of the Country.’ I’m also attached to a biopic about (atomic spies) Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I also wrote a project about (American author) Susan Sontag, which takes place in the late 1970s in New York.
Written by: Karen Benardello