Originally written for and posted on Film Inquiry.
Directed by Feng Xiaogang, I Am Not Madame Bovary tells the story of Li Xuelian (played by Fan Bingbing) who, in order to get the apartment she desires, conspires to get a “fake” divorce from her husband. However, once the divorce is official, she is shocked to discover that her now ex-husband has moved into the apartment with another woman. This begins her quest to have her “fake” divorce annulled so she can remarry her husband and then divorce him “for real”.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is written by Liu Zhenyun and based on his 2012 novel I am Not Pan Jinlian. The book was translated in order to keep the same connotations, and both Pan Jinlian and Madame Bovary connote promiscuity, adultery, and shame. When Li Xuelian confronts her ex-husband about his betrayal, he publically humiliates her, calling her a “Pan Jinlian” for having pre-marital sex, which only fans the flames of her vengeance and her need to seek justice.
A Political Dark Comedy
The film is highly critical of Chinese bureaucracy, both using the plot to highlight its inability to care about anything other than their job position, as well as poking fun at the workings of officialdom with the conversations between the officials themselves. Li Xuelian is so fed up that at one point she tries to hire someone to kill both her ex-husband and the government officials who have failed her. The moment is funny and well written, but also dark as you watch her become unhinged in frustration.
More than ten years pass in the film, and Xuelian continues to sue the state for failing to recognise her case. She confronts officials in the street, hurls herself in front of their cars. Eventually, they become afraid of her, and afraid of losing their jobs due to being unable to stop her protesting. The film works as a dark comedy to a degree, satirising the Chinese bureaucratic system, but it is very repetitive. The second half’s events set later in the protagonist’s life are very similar to the first half, since she meets the same people and faces the same obstacles. But at times it is funny and twisted, and pokes fun in a clever and subtle way.
A Unique Use of Aspect Ratios
Most of the film is framed with a round aspect ratio that gives the story the feeling of examining one of the examples of Chinese paintings shown during the prologue of the film. Due to the miniature space the filmmakers have given themselves to work with, everything is highly stylised and dramatised, making use of every inch of the space.
I Am Not Madame Bovary occasionally has a Wes Anderson feel with its dry humour, as it is overly choreographed and with not-quite-realistic settings. When Xuelian arrives in Beijing, the aspect ratio changes to a smart-phone-like portrait view, allowing you to see more of the frame – but everything is also blander as she meets identical bureaucrat and bureaucrat, getting nowhere. However, although I enjoyed this unique style, it did make the subtitles difficult to read and sometimes made it hard to see facial expressions clearly, which overshadowed somewhat Fan Bingbing, who otherwise is brilliant with her subtle and emotional performance. She shines amongst the otherwise all-male cast who also perform well, with great comedic timing.
Overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of Chinese politics, as well as their view of women and sexuality. Xuelian is a fantastic character who may not be educated or wealthy, but is driven and passionate about finding justice for herself. I definitely enjoyed the film and its unique stylistic aesthetic, as well as the strong performances throughout.
Would a unique visual style make you more likely to see a film? Is that something filmmakers should be experimenting with more?
I Am Not Madame Bovary is currently playing in the USA and China. For all international release dates, click here.