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I Am Not Madame Bovary
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"Close to inner-circle."
4 stars

My first thought on seeing the previews for "I Am Not Madame Bovary", and for a while during the movie, involved wondering what a conscientious projectionist would do to try and matte it properly, what with the circular image and all. It's a simultaneously distracting and focusing way to present this particular movie, promising that it's clever and satiric and deserving a close read even if the exact meaning can sometimes be a little tough to grasp, despite being front and center.

After all, even before the story proper has started, the audience has to confront the unusual framing; as much as human vision is basically elliptical, we mostly view the world through rectangular portals, whether they be movie screens or windows (the literal kind or the ones on computers). So when we see the initially-circular image in front of us, unavoidably with a border and a rectangle around it, we're forced to think of other times we see the world with round borders. The film doesn't feel particularly telescopic, though - we aren't at an unusual remove, or voyeuristically watching the action with a secret interest. Perhaps a microscope is a better metaphor, though there's nothing about this story that presents its characters as particularly small or mysterious, something to be studied to understand the mechanisms at play, at least until it is nearing its end. And if that's the case, why the square frame for the scenes taking place in and around Beijing? An implication that things are more orderly there, with less potentially hidden in margins?

That story revolves around Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), "Lian" for short, important because Pan Jinlian is the Chinese equivalent of the Madame Bovary of the English-language title, and her husband attempting to equate them is a blow to her self-respect. As the film starts, she is upset because, when she and husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) divorced a year previously, she believed it to be "fake", a way to manipulate the government's housing regulations so that he could get a better apartment that they could keep when remarrying, only for him to marry another woman. So she takes her case to Justice Wang (Dong Chengpeng), then the chief justice, the county chief, and the mayor, all of whom blow her off. She considers murder, but also makes her way to Beijing, where she meets old classmate Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), a chef at the facility where the National People's Congress is held. The fallout from that visit may not repair her reputation, but ten years later, it has the new county chief (Yu Hewei) and mayor (Zhang Jia-yi) panicked about what she might do at that year's NPC, even when she says she has no plans to go to Beijing.

Director Feng Xiaogang is one of China's most commercially successful filmmakers, and the peculiar framing choices initially suggest that he's bringing an arch sensibility to a somewhat conventional dark comedy or thriller here: Captions enumerate Lian's potential victims, her offer to trade sex for a butcher's help in eliminating her enemies means that she might become what she is accused of being, and a scene of her sharpening a knife (complete with subtlety-free music) is very easy to take literally rather than metaphorically. Feng is no stranger to satire, though, with barbed farce Big Shot's Funeral an early highlight of his career, and the second half of the film especially casts a jaded eye on how bureaucracies, including and especially government, can be influenced in absurdly disproportionate ways. Feng and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun (who also wrote the original novel) kind of wink at this initially, seldom pointing out that the injustice Lian seeks redress for could easily be seen as just desserts for attempting to commit fraud, letting the freshness of Lian's pain focus attention on the hips she must jump through. It's the second half where the film's teeth get sharper even as its targets broaden: The idea that all of these officials are jumping to meet and negotiate with this one peasant woman ten years on is absurd, as are the lengths they'll go to in order to avoid loading face because of her.

It's something that could be farcical, the set-up for a massive caper and a snowball rolling out of control until it becomes an avalanche, but Feng resists the big set-piece, instead using the tight circle to emphasize the petty nature of the officials' plotting and the odd power dynamics at play (being at the center of the screen takes on a special importance when being of to the side reduces the vertical space available). The nature of the framing also prevents the government from becoming a monolith looming over Lian - as much as she is one person railing against a system, that system becomes a few people fighting for self-preservation. Zhang Jia-yi is a standout as the new mayor keen to avoid his predecessor's fate, as is Guo Tao as the cook who figured he would never have had a chance with Lian back in middle school.

And while Lian's friends and foes may change over the course of the movie, Fan Bingbing is a constant at the center of it, staking out new territory in a career that has not featured a lot of hefty dramatic roles. She handles this one impressively, though, establishing something between petulance and full-on delusion as she starts on he quest, even while making sure that the hurt feelings that spur it remain very real. Feng deploys her beauty carefully in the early going, not having her outright turn heads but making it clear that she's probably been able to get men to do what she asks for much of her life, enough for this betrayal and frustration to sting a bit more. When things jump to the present day, she's not really looking glamorous at all, but her take on the older, somewhat wiser but still potentially impulsive Lian is just as intriguing to watch as she uncovers what had been buried, wringing bitter laughs from how difficult it can be to get past certain things.

There's one more big shift in screen format for the epilogue, which at once seems to be reading the audience out of the theater with something more familiar and reminding them that the film is built on a fair amount of visual gimmicry. And even if the temptation is to treat it like a bit of excess, say that the performances and satire are strong enough to hold up even without a visual hook whose point is not always obvious, there does seem to be something useful about switching things up and encouraging the viewer to look closely as a result.

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originally posted: 11/21/16 14:48:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Xiaogang Feng

Written by
  Zhenyun Liu

  Bingbing Fan
  Tao Guo
  Da Peng
  Hewei Yu
  Jia-yi Zhang

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