DVD Review: I Am Not Madame Bovary (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Thom Compton 11.10.2017

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I Am Not Madame Bovary (UK Rating: 12)

Film critics seem to have a type. Often, that type is long pieces about the human condition, as it applies to simpler men and women. These films, fodder for Oscar season, tell captivating stories about humans' abilities to overcome, whether it be a tremendous tragedy or the perils of everyday life. Critics lap these kinds of films up, as they showcase how serious film can be when used as tool to record history, ambitions and, most importantly, human nature in general. I Am Not Madame Bovary wants desperately to be this kind of movie, it seems, yet it never manages to come close. This Mandarin language movie, with English subtitles, is out now on DVD in the UK via Thunderbird Releasing.

I Am Not Madame Bovary tells the story of a restaurant owner, Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), who recently divorced her husband, Qin (Li Zonghan). She insists that the divorce was false, and that the courts made a mistake in honouring it. This, right here, is a dangerous plot to keep up. It lives on the hairline fracture between absurd and eccentric and feels like it could teeter off at any moment. How can a divorce be fabricated? It can be done under false pretences, but divorces, themselves, are not ambiguous; they either are or they aren't. This isn't to say that the premise is wholly flawed; it is merely meant to state that it's flimsy and requires a good degree of control to see it through.

A good degree of control, however, this film does not have. From the early onset, the idea is treated as ridiculously as it sounds, with Li coming across as a demented woman incapable of controlling her feelings. Along the way, she meets several allies, many of whom she scorns or uses to her own gain, and is extremely annoying. Watching her run up to government officials and harass them over and over again is frustrating at the least and goofy at worst. This isn't even the kind of goofy that registers a laugh, just a cocked eyebrow and an eye roll.

Her supporting cast isn't all that much better. Some of this comes down to the paltry script that seems determined to mine every supporting cast member for every last breath they can muster. Some scenes are agonisingly long, and amount to nothing more than small talk meant to build up characters that will never be seen again. At one point, a government official gives a speech about Li and manages to spend most of it just prattling on about the state of the government. It comes off more like a speech you might hear at a conference called, "Men in Suits Managing Money." Also, as a brief aside, this movie seems absolutely obsessed with tree metaphors, especially in the second half. None of them are particularly profound or interesting, but it's just weird how many times trees come up.

The second half of the film, however, is appallingly bad, yet the more watchable of the two halves. While the opening 45 minutes or so are mostly just watching people go, "Shut her up! She's crazy," and then Li being crazy, the second half turns into one half absurd comedy, one half love story. The love story will be addressed in a minute, as it's the most jarring thing about the entire movie, but the comedy portion is almost as bad.

You see, after many years of Li going after government officials, they grow concerned she is going to sue again. This results in them hunting her down after she escapes town. Let that sentence sink in for a minute. She is going to sue the government, so they start a manhunt. It's completely ridiculous, but it is somehow kind of fun to watch. There's something almost comical about watching a group of men hunt down a lady with a razor sharp obsession with paperwork and the judicial system. Fortunately, the movie doesn't seem to take the pursuit of Li very seriously, and seems to be poking fun at the nature of bureaucracy. It's not the best satire - if that is indeed the point - but it's better than almost anything else I Am Not Madame Bovary has shown so far.

Then there's the love story. Datou is introduced as a loveable guy that just wants to ensure Li, his childhood love, is safe and taken care of. By the end of the film, Datou is transformed into a complete and utter idiot. His actions are monstrous at worst, but he makes up a small portion of the film, so why even bring it up? Well, because of how the film handles it. In the interest of not spoiling it for those who do see this, it will remain a mystery. However, he commits a very heinous act that the film treats as completely normal. It's jarring, grotesque, and despite the cultural differences at play here, is completely inexcusable. Sure, China might be a different culture, but it's not that different.

All of this, besides Datou perhaps, could be overlooked if the director, Feng Xiaogang, hadn't gone out of his way to frame the movie in the weirdest way possible. While in the countryside, the screen is reduced to an oval shaped spot, taking up a majority of the middle of the screen, which leaves a large portion completely black. Once Li arrives in Beijing, it opens up into a square portion that takes up the entire middle of the screen. The oval portion is the most difficult to watch, and dramatically limits the amount of action and background that can be fit on the TV. However, it does have a certain quality, like watching a painting come to life - that makes it a bit easier to handle. Sure, those paintings may be called One Pees While One Watches or What Men Do on Stairs, but it does have a certain beauty to it.

All in all, I Am Not Madame Bovary isn't really worth anyone's time. In terms of being a comedy, it's not very funny as the acting is often over the top, while the dialogue reaches the point of small talk just before "Crazy weather we're having, right?" The saddest part is the very end, which shows some signs of life and could change the way the audience will see Li. However, this is relegated to what could have amounted to a ring tone. For a movie that spends so much of its run time making its lead look like a cynical, crazy old crow, this is deeply insulting. It's almost like the movie convinced viewers she committed murder, and just as they are leaving the theatre, it whispers, "Just kidding. It was me."

Rated 3 out of 10


Thanks to a handful of decent scenes and some very beautiful imagery, I Am Not Madame Bovary isn't completely unwatchable. Outside of those moments, though, it is a rare film that is its own antagonist. Less of a movie, and more of a schoolyard bully spreading rumours about its main character, this entire experience comes off as a decadent film that nobody should ever take too seriously.

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