To immediately disappoint fans of Gustave Flaubert, I Am Not Madame Bovary has no likeness to Madame Bovary other than its title. Chosen by the film’s translators as a more recognisable defamation than the ancient Chinese epithet “Pan Jinlain”, Madame Bovary/Pan Jinlain is the identity branded on to peasant woman Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) after her complicated fake divorce from her husband.
The film charts her decade-long struggle to invalidate her first, fake, divorce in order to entirely divorce her husband and gain some sort of civil rights – although what exactly she’s after is hard to work out. If that hasn’t complicated things enough, the sprawling impediments of the Chinese legal system tie this yarn together in all sorts of knotty ways, leaving its audience slightly lost.
Bureaucracy is male-fronted and the film’s moments of comedic incompetence are somewhat drowned out by its unceasing courtroom scenes. Reaching almost two and a half hours, Feng’s jibe at the ineptitude of government officials loses the punch its trailer promised – its assault on drawn-out Chinese legal procedures frustratingly backfires.
I Am Not Madame Bovary will undoubtedly be applauded for its Wes-redolent visuals. Framed within a circular aspect ratio as if to suggest both the lens of a telescope or the narrowness of a peephole, Feng leaves his audience both voyeuristically distant and tightly intimate. Even within its painterly portraiture, there is a lot about the film’s protagonist that is left to be seen.
Innovative aspect ratios and artful photography make I Am Not Madame Bovary a delight to watch, but it just doesn’t leave enough to chew on. Li’s passionate, feminist search to rid herself of the identity others have chosen for her is not narrated in the first person – and this is the film’s most fundamental mistake.
CAST: Chengpeng Dong, Bingbing Fan, Wei Fan
DIRECTOR: Xiaogang Feng
WRITER: Zhenyun Liu
SYNOPSIS: After being swindled by her husband, a woman takes on the Chinese legal system.