Adapting the great 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert for the screen has always been a tricky process. Claude Chabrol’s 1991 version of Madame Bovary, for example, never manages to capture the mordant irony of the original text. And provincial boredom, while fascinating when portrayed on the page, becomes simply boring in a dramatized version.
First-time director Marion Laine faces many of the same problems when adapting Flaubert’s late work, the novella Un Cœur Simple, in this new movie version. Certainly much of the narrative irony is lost when transferred to images, yet the way in which Flaubert manages to make the humdrum life of a simple servant both noble and tragic is conveyed with skill and passion by Laine. Although Laine claims to have freely adapted the novella, this film strikes me as an accurate and often literal representation of the original, respecting both chronology and the characterization of the protagonists.
The story focuses largely on the evolving relationship between the inappropriately named Félicité (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her hard-hearted employer Madame Aubain (Marina Foïs). Félicité successively attaches herself emotionally to a man named Théodore, her mistress’s daughter Virginie, her nephew and, finally, a parrot, but she is abandoned by each in different ways. Fluffy (or even feathery) escapist entertainment this ain’t.
Bonnaire is superlative in the central role. Her body and face progressively bear the marks of the disasters and disappointments that befall her. Although for much of the movie she speaks very little, Bonnaire conveys depth and emotion with an astonishing economy. Foïs is excellent opposite her as we gradually discover that even Madame Aubain, described by Flaubert in the second sentence of his story as “not an agreeable person,” has a human side.
Running at 1 hour and 45 minutes, Un Coeur simple is shorter than most films released these days, but it still feels 15 minutes too long. Overall, though, this is a visually striking and excellently acted film. Even Flaubert might have been pleased with it.Favorite