French director Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery is a comic reworking of Madame Bovary, but that's merely the first of the movie's several layers. The bilingual film is adapted not from Flaubert's classic but from British cartoonist Posy Simmonds' graphic novel, set in contemporary times and with the Boverys as a London couple that just relocated to Normandy.
In addition, star Gemma Arterton has already appeared in a film based on a second Simmonds work, Tamara Drewe, an update of another woman-centered 19th-century novel, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. That book was recently filmed with Carey Mulligan in the lead role, and the latest cinematic take on Madame Bovary is due next month, with Mia Wasikowska in the title role.
Hardy's Bathsheba and Flaubert's Emma both marry the wrong man, with serious consequences. Sexual alliances are easier for thoroughly modern Gemma (Arterton), who arrives in the town where Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary as the young second wife of Charlie Bovery (Jason Flemyng), an antiques restorer. Both have exes back in London; Gemma's is the caddish Patrick (Mel Raido), who will eventually turn up in France, eager to seduce lovely Gemma. Join the queue.
Although she seems to love her husband, Gemma soon takes up with Herve (Niels Schneider), a handsome if shallow local aristocrat. Her interest in him is hard to fathom, but new next-door neighbor Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) thinks he understands it. Martin, a literary-minded baker, believes he has somehow willed the two together, using the mojo of his love for Flaubert and his lust for Gemma.
Martin's attraction is represented on screen by longing gazes at Gemma, and lingering closeups of her neck, back, and other curved body parts. Fontaine is one of those French female directors who presents beautiful women with particular ardor. Although probably best known in the U.S. for Coco Before Chanel, she has also directed such erotic bon-bons as Nathalie... (remade in English by Atom Egoyan as the nutty Chloe) and The Girl from Monaco.
In the latter, Luchini also plays an older man who's overwhelmed by a young beauty's seductiveness. For Gemma Bovery, Fontaine expanded Martin's role from that in the graphic novel, so that he becomes the central character. Luchini accepts this added responsibility with a performance that's ruefully humorous and more, uh, full-bodied than Arterton's.
Gemma Bovery is not all yearning looks and hurried trysts. Scripters Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer, with an assist from Simmonds on the English dialogue, have some fun with the way food has replaced the arts as the educated class' preoccupation. Elsa Zylberstein plays a fussily self-involved Frenchwoman whose vocabulary includes such imported terms as "wasabi" and "gluten-free." But food can be sensuous, and it's inevitable that Martin will give Gemma a bread-making lesson, highlighted by the moment when the overheated young woman slowly pulls off her sweater.
Concerned that Gemma's life might end as prematurely as Emma's, Martin watches over her carefully. But how could Gemma Bovery turn into a tragedy, when it's so pleasant and picturesque? Christophe Beaucarne shoots the countryside, the baked goods, Gemma and Martin's playful dogs, and of course Arterton with sun-dappled rapture. No 19th-century novelist saw the world like this.
Ultimately, Flaubert's scenario exercises its power over Gemma, which seems a miscalculation, and is certainly a disappointment. For much of its running time, Gemma Bovery is too airy to be crushed to earth by literature. Damn the great novels, and pass the croissants.