Tag Archives: plotting

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 6 – The Almost People


Yet again I am late with my thoughts on the latest episode. I’d actually been putting off my standard pre-blog second viewing, for two reasons. On the one hand I was so blown away by the unexpected cliff hanger that I didn’t think I would be able to say much besides “what will happen next week?” in various different ways. On the other, I was disappointed with The Almost People.

I should qualify that statement by explaining that when it comes to Doctor Who, even a below par outing is a must see event I can always derive satisfaction from. A bad Doctor Who episode is merely relatively poor, compared to the greatness of other episodes, and still one of the best things on telly.

Why was I disappointed though? It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason. As the Guardian series blog points out, the shocking and momentous twist at the end would overshadow whatever came before it, no matter how good it was. But The Almost People was certainly not as good as it could have been and not as good as the promise set up in The Rebel Flesh. In fact there were some shockingly bad elements.

As I said in last week’s piece, Matthew Graham’s script was inconsistent. After watching The Almost People for a second time, I liked it a lot more and appreciated the extremely intricate and clever plotting. All of the character development ploughed into the Gangers, for Jimmy and his son, Cleaves and her blood clot, even the Doctors shoe swapping, made more sense once you knew that this was all part of the Doctor mulling over Amy’s impostor. The Doctor still gets the odd good line; with Matt Smith making most of the disappointing ones look good too with a varied and vibrant performance. Re-watch it and see the burden of worry about where the real Amy is on his face, way before we find out.

 However Graham’s script also contained such truly awful lines as “who are the real monsters?” and “It will destroy them all”. And whilst you can see the idea behind the development of the Gangers far more clearly after a second viewing, it doesn’t always come off, with stereotypical northern Buzzer not convincing at all as he moans “I should have been a postman like me dad”. Then there’s the terrible acting, which I touched upon last week, even more noticeable this time. Cleaves and Jennifer in particular are woefully portrayed.

So despite a lot of potential, with intelligent moral dilemmas and frightening psychological horror, this double bill never really grabbed my attention completely. Until the climax that is. With the rather random and forced CGI monster out of the way and the ridiculous farewell hugs when the beast was supposedly breaking down the door, the Doctor becomes grave and ushers Amy and Rory into the TARDIS. He had a reason for his visit to the factory with the flesh. Amy has not been with them for some time.

But how long? She must surely have been there for the Doctor’s death at the beginning of the series? Did the swap take place during an adventure we saw on screen or another in between time? It would seem a bit of a cop out if it just happened somewhere along the line and we’re not given a precise explanation as to when.

There are endless other questions, and knowing Moffat, the majority will be left unanswered. We are promised that next week’s A Good Man Goes to War will see the unveiling of River Song’s true identity though. And the trailer shows us that the Cybermen are back, but once again, knowing Moffat, they’re unlikely to be the real masterminds behind it all. Who impregnated Amy? Was the Timelord child from the opening two parter hers? The Doctor shouts something about not using a baby as a weapon in the trailer, to mysterious eye patch midwife Madame Kovarian, so how exactly does she do that?

After this disappointing pair of episodes following the superb The Doctor’s Wife by Neil Gaiman, doubts resurface, for me at least, about trying to do too much with the story arc. In overlaying so many secrets, which are often tagged onto the ends of episodes, Moffat risks devaluing the standalone stories and turning the increasingly strained relationships within the TARDIS into soap opera. I’m sure that A Good Man Goes to War will be an improvement on The Almost People, if only in terms of the quality of the dialogue. But hopefully, with some real answers, Doctor Who will also begin to get back to just telling damn good stories every week too.

The King Maker


Last year the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was dubbed a “King Maker” by many in the press, due to the historic power afforded to him as a result of a hung parliament. He could either prop up grumpy Gordon or crack open the party poppers for Dave’s coronation. The public rejoiced in watching the usual big boys squirm and a new man get a chance to pull the strings. But now no one agrees with Nick and he’s plummeted from the heights of Britain’s most popular to the land’s favourite burning effigy. Thousands genuinely hate him and want to scratch out his entrails for his sickening, unnatural marriage to the Tories. They despise him for drunkenly tossing away longstanding pledges to the public on his stag night and loathe him for cutting chunks from the country’s finances lustfully on honeymoon. For many it’s a painful, all consuming dislike of this one yellow tied Westminster suit amongst hundreds.

It’s sometimes easy to accept the idea that in today’s world, truly bad films don’t get made anymore. It’s impossible to find two hours in front of a screen with some flickering images completely unsatisfying. You can’t hate a piece of filmmaking like you hate a man. You can’t find it as painfully offensive to your artistic taste and morality as swathes of reckless, damaging government spending cuts. This may be true. Even the most misguided projects I review usually have some kind of redeeming quality, at least one moment of real enjoyment or an admirable aim. But The King Maker is a film that took only 60 seconds for me to want the blessed release of the end credits. It’s an absolute and total turkey, the sort of film that goes straight to the bottom shelf at Tesco for a reason, the sort of film that without qualification deserves the label: BAD.

Out of scores and scores of poor movies, The King Maker is one of the few that if you have any sense of quality and taste, you’ll rapidly be able to regard with something close to hate. Seriously you should heed my warning if you want to avoid an excruciating hour and a half; do not watch The King Maker. Certainly DO NOT PAY ANY (real) MONEY TO SEE THIS. You might think its 88 minute running time short, but it feels a hell of a lot longer and you’ll never get those precious minutes back. There is nothing at all to justify spending time on this lifeless, empty shell of a film.

Literally nothing at all, everything about The King Maker is purely bad. As I’ve said it takes less than a minute for the shoddy editing and woefully low production standards present throughout to raise their ugly, persistent heads. The film opens with an action chase sequence peppered with ludicrous ninja/karate style high kicks and flips. There are jumps and landings that would be laughable were the tone not so serious or the camerawork and execution not so dire. In fact much of the action in The King Maker could be from a masterful slice of slapstick Charlie Chaplin or a ridiculous Monty Python sketch. But The King Maker is not even so bad it is funny. At times it ought to be hilarious. I did not laugh or smile once at its awfulness though. Afterwards my face hurt from the exhaustive efforts of a non-stop grimace.

The main reason I can’t even recommend The King Maker as refreshing fest of unintentional LOL moments is because it’s evident that the actors are trying so damn hard. You can’t have a good old heartening chuckle at all those involved in the film when it’s so obvious that they were trying to make something good; they have no idea how shit it is and you’re left with an endless feeling of painful pity. Every element of the movie is bad, every acting performance poor at best and agonisingly awful at worst. In fairness to the cast they are not helped by the script. Rather than rant about its failures one quote sums up the clunky, grating quality of the dialogue: “Look it’s the king’s emissary, I wonder what he wants?”.

For what it’s worth the film chronicles the story of Portuguese mercenary Fernando De Gama (Gary Stretch), who is shipwrecked in Siam and rescued from slavery by his love interest. He works his way up through the ranks of society, stumbles across a plot, and has scores of his own to settle blah blah blah…it’s really not worth it.

There are continuity errors aplenty, an out of place soundtrack that will make you cringe, silly stunts and cliché black and white flashbacks. CGI of a port full of ships looks like it’s been taken from an unsuccessful computer game with unconvincing Windows 98 graphics (the water in particular looks atrocious). In fact the plot and action set pieces and horrible attempts at a historical setting all seem like ingredients from an out of date, bargain basement video game. There are even punch and kick sound effects ripped straight from cartoon archives.

Despite my partial defence of the actors earlier, the standout flaws of this film are their totally unbelievable performances. The worst offender is the plotting Queen and her lover as they fail to convey the passion of their secret affair. The majority of their scenes together seem like a disappointing porno with an inexplicable lack of flesh on show. Another potentially career devastating turn comes from lead Gary Stretch. His limp delivery of lines serves as the final nail in the coffin for The King Maker. Even a film so badly executed could have salvaged some likeability with a charismatic turn from the lead actor. Stretch merely drags things further into painful depths of disappointment and dismalness.

The King Maker was supposed to be a spectacular showcase of Thailand. It’s only the third Thai film to be made in the English language, and the first since 1941. There are some superb, beautiful locations occasionally visible in the background amongst the appalling action of the story. But they don’t deserve to be associated with the worst film I’ve seen this year and I suspect the favourite by a mile in the race for worst film of 2011.