A Multifaceted Satire of Politics and Bureaucracy

in 41st Toronto International Film Festival

by Neta Alexander

The first few minutes of Feng Xiaogang’s ambitious new feature, “I Am Not Madame Bovary,” are quite confusing. The prologue, a retelling of a Chinese folktale, explains how the name “Madame Bovary” has become a derogatory epithet for unfaithful wives. The content, however, is not as striking as the form: playing with unconventional aspect ratios, Feng shot most of his film using a circular – rather than rectangular – frame, giving the illusion that we are uninvited guests looking through a peephole.

Feng is not the first filmmaker to break with the tyranny of the rectangular movie screen. (Xavier Dolan has recently done so in his 2014 feature “Mommy,” which uses a 1:1 “square” aspect ratio.) But “I Am Not Madame Bovary” is one of the most successful examples of this technique. Feng’s stylistic choices, which include striking shots of China’s landscapes and the various aspect ratios used throughout the film, create a confined and narrow world that cleverly echoes the emotional and legal prison in which the protagonist finds herself.

This modern fable follows an uneducated village woman named Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) whose husband betrayed her trust and stole her property. Desperate to punish him and redeem her good name, she embarks on a decade-long, Kafkaesque struggle, taking on the Chinese legal system all the way to a high court in Beijing.

What starts out as a comedy or a political satire aimed at the Chinese bureaucracy evolves into a drama and, by its end, a psychological thriller. As Li Xuelian moves from one court to the next, the viewer must ask why she is so adamant about the trial. Her husband has long since moved on and she is running a small café in the Chinese province. Why can’t she simply let go of what seems to be a long-forgotten mistake?

The answer to this question is revealed only at the very end, leaving the viewer with a portrait of a protagonist who dedicates her entire life to fighting the windmills of the juridical system. This story has been told before – for example, in the award-winning Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” from 2014 – and yet Feng, a veteran Chinese director known for his successful comedies, is able to imbue his work with a sense of urgency.

Due to the length of the film, as well as the nature of the struggle, “I Am Not Madame Bovary” is sometimes frustrating or exhausting, but in a way that puts us in Li Xuelian’s shoes. Much like her, we find ourselves wondering when this nightmarish pursuit of the truth will come to an end. The film, however, is never boring due to its vivid cinematography, which draws inspiration from Chinese oil paintings. The result portrays China as both a mythical place and a land haunted by discrimination,class and gender divisions in particular. Li’s existence is confined by political, social, and familial norms that mark her as “Madame Bovary” – a woman who betrayed her most sacred obligation and must now pay the highest price.

A multifaceted satire of politics and bureaucracy, “I am Not Madam Bovary” won the FIPRESCI prize in the Special Presentations program at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) since it offers its viewers a memorable and surprising cinematic journey through the changing landscapes of China. While other films in the competition were stylistically ambitious, Feng’s work uses aspect ratio as a tool to enrich, complicate, and expand the reach of the protagonist’s struggle.

When we eventually learn why Li had refused to abandon the case, her commitment to the truth is not only more sensible – but much more moving. It was not, after all, a story of legal procedures, real estate, possessions, and betrayal. It was also a story of something entirely different — the kind of pain that is so deep and paralyzing that it is also unrepresentable. The fact that this is conveyed to us through the arresting views of rural China makes this final realization all the more urgent and memorable.

Edited by Michael Sicinski