The title I Am Not Madame Bovary is not some kind of clever double bluff. Feng Xiaogang’s movie, based on the novel Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián, is based on the similarly adulterous Chinese legend Pān Jīnlián, whose story is summarized for the audience so much in the prologue that it does not make too much sense as to why they use the Western reference point of Madame Bovary in the first place.
Either way, the story told here is all about denying these labels. Li Xuelian, or Lian (played by Fan Bingbing, a famous Chinese actress for whom additional scenes of Iron Man 3 were filmed specifically for China) looks for retribution after an absurd scheme to “fake” divorce her husband so they can access a specific apartment goes wrong, with her ex finding another woman and Lian looking to petition every official to null her divorce so she can get a real one. Indeed, this plot is so ridiculously pedantic that if it wasn’t for Fan Bingbing’s enigmatic, charming performance – and a revealing epilogue that probably should not have been played as a twist – so much of the movie’s quixotic energy and broader messages would be lost.
The vitality is evenly matched by the sheer look of the movie. Pan Luo’s pastel coloured cinematography strikes out enough on its own, and Xiaogang’s use of that camera makes you realise why he is one of China’s most successful filmmakers. But what immediately stands out is the use of aspect ratio, for the most part taking place through a circular frame, or its Beijing scenes in a square box a la Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Unlike Mommy though, and the similarly adventurous Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s not a revealing element as to why the story is filmed in such a way (maybe the idea of bureaucracy making people stuck in circular patterns?), but the beauty and novelty help make sure that not a single frame is uninteresting.
Maybe the artistic clout of this decision is lost in translation, in much the same way as the narrative. If one doesn’t know some basics in the history of People’s Republic of China, you might be confused as to why the officials of the story are so afraid of Lian’s constant petitions, and considering the surprising length the movie doesn’t go out of its way to explain. Fortunately watching the transformation of the country throughout the decades of the story is its own reward, and the broader satirical points of the public/private faces of the government are more than applicable.
This is a message, however, that did not to be explained in a monologue near the movie’s closing minutes, or indeed take the span of more than two hours when a shorter movie would have been less repetitive. Still, between the exploration of sexism and government corruption, the beauty of I Am Not Madame Bovary and Fan Bingbing’s incredible performance, the movie still has enough to chew on amidst all the fat.