Title: Gemma Bovery
Director: Anne Fontaine
Major Players: Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng
Out Of Five: 3
Last week, an updated version of a classic 60s TV series arrived in cinemas. This time, it’s an update of a literary classic from the 19th century. In theory, it stands a reasonable chance of a decent big screen adaptation, as it’s not just based on the novel but a contemporary cartoon strip. But on the other hand, the novel is so highly regarded and loved that moving it into the 21st century is questionable in itself. In fact, this is a film with a very big question mark hanging over it from start to finish.
The book, as you’ll have guessed, is Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s novel about the rural doctor’s wife who is always disappointed in love. Martin (Fabrice Luchini) has lived in a rural Normandy village for seven years, having inherited a bakery from his father. An English couple, Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charlie (Jason Flemyng) Bovery, move into a nearby house, intent on a new life. Gemma fascinates Martin, so much so that when she starts having an affair with young Herve de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), he contrives to break it up. It works, but not before Charlie has discovered what’s going on behind his back.
I’ve not read Posy Simmons’ Gemma Bovery cartoon series, so I can’t comment on how faithful the film is to her work. But there’s nothing in the film that shows us any reason for the update. What we’re presented with is something rather like a soufflé – lightweight and full of air.
That’s not to say it’s an unpleasant experience: it’s charming and, at times, witty. But it has a very sizeable problem in Martin. He has a passion for 19th century literature, Flaubert in particular and, as soon as he learns his neighbour’s name, he convinces himself her behaviour echoes that of the original Emma Bovary. But his obsession with Gemma grows to the extent that he almost becomes a stalker and there’s something decidedly unsettling about his behaviour. At one point he bakes a loaf of bread for her and wraps it in a basket to leave at her front door. Except when he gets there, he just has to listen to what’s going on in the house as well. It takes him an unnerving amount of time to leave the gift on the doorstep and leave.
As a depiction of rural French life, the film has some charm and gets the atmosphere totally right. The camerawork leans towards the romantic, with soft focus, warm yellow sunlight streaming in through the window, but it never goes over the edge into idealism. In that way, it has its feet firmly planted on the floor, with the bread in Martin’s shop looking so delicious that you can almost smell it. The weather isn’t always sunny: it buckets with rain, the roof on Gemma and Charlie’s house leaks, the electrics are dodgy and there’s the resident mice, which always make Gemma jump out of her skin.
The affluent English who’ve moved to the French countryside for the proverbial simple life are parodied in the couple’s new friends. Rankin (Pip Torrens) and Wizzy (Elsa Zylberstein) live nearby: he’s English with the mandatory plummy accent, she’s French but speaks fluent English with an American accent. And they make it very clear that they’re rolling in it, viewing the Normandy countryside as their playground and France as a whole as their own private larder. You can understand Martin’s irritation and he doesn’t attempt to hide it much. Gemma and Charlie come in for far less mockery: he’s a restorer and she’s an interior designer and decorator, but they’re not showy about their money and certainly don’t have plums in their mouths.
Despite the English characters at the centre of the story, this French/British co-production is mainly in French with sub-titles, re-inforcing the authenticity of the setting. Both Arterton and Flemyng had to learn French for the film and they do fine. Arterton, in particular, puts in a very appealing performance, not steamily sexy but with a winning smile and unaffected manner that has a definite appeal – especially to Martin. And, given his po-faced wife and teenage son whose only interest is video games, you can understand why he nurses his escapist dream . But he can’t see where fantasy ends and reality begins and crossing that line brings consequences.
If you feel the need to classify the film, then it’s a comedy/drama, with more comedy in the first half and more drama in the second. But bear in mind that, as the film itself points out, not a great deal actually happens in the original novel. It’s all about the feelings and emotions of the characters, Madame Bovary in particular. By comparison, Gemma Bovary is pleasant and pretty but, nonetheless, a superficial piece of froth.
Gemma Bovery is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 21 August and is also reviewed on Talking Pictures.