Oh, to be beautiful and bored. It has been over 150 years since Gustave Flaubert shocked the world with “Madame Bovary,” his groundbreaking book about a provincial doctor’s wife who embarks on a tragic affair to escape her dull, routine life. And ever since, the character of Emma Bovary has become both a literary and cinematic archetype, fueling an entire subgenre of stories about women looking to escape their circumstances, only to find hard consequences following dalliances outside their marriage and home. It’s a story that still resonates (see our review of Sophie Barthes‘ straightforward take on the novel starring Mia Wasikowska), but can present-day riff “Gemma Bovary” find any new insights to the yarn Flaubert spun over a century and a half ago?
The short answer is no, but then again, Anne Fontaine‘s film isn’t exactly trying to be progressive either. Based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, the slightly reinvented story is told in flashback through the eyes of Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), as he reads Gemma’s (Gemma Arterton) diaries, which intermingle with his own memories of what happens to the beautiful young woman. A baker in Normandy, Martin, his wife and teenage son, live across from Gemma, who moves from London with her new husband Charles (Jason Flemyng) and shakes loose in the bread maker what he describes as “ten years of sexual tranquility.” His entreating and yearning eyes toward Gemma betray a passion stirred both from genuine lust but also a personal love for Flaubert’s novel, which changed his life when he was sixteen, and soon he’s quietly watching her from a distance as she makes a series of decisions reminiscent of the character in the great novel.
Simmonds also wrote the similarly reimagined take on “Far From The Madding Crowd” which became “Tamara Drewe,” also starring Arterton, and here the results are similarly trifling. Neither the author, or screenwriters Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer, are particularly concerned about thematic depth so much as frothy entertainment, and to those minimum expectations, the film succeeds. But its lightness is also its greatest flaw, as it’s difficult to be particularly invested in Gemma’s plight. She lives in a ramshackle house on an otherwise gorgeous piece of land in the French countryside, and her boredom and disaffection are the kind of issue she can afford to have, seemingly not having any real other responsibilities to deal with. She’s certainly not trapped in her marriage, and given this is 2014, she’s free to leave at any time, and yet, for the conventions of this story, the audience has to play along that she has no other options. As such, her torrid romance never lands with the feeling of freedom it should, and the problems that result from it aren’t really relatable either.
But if anything, Fontaine knows how to make her actresses look good (ie. “Coco Before Chanel“), and in every frame, Arterton is nothing short of luminous. Her beauty, and the character’s ability to magnetize almost any man who comes into her periphery, is never in doubt, and the actress is in such full command of her every movement that a sequence in which she kneads dough is practically pornographic. But try as it might, “Gemma Bovery” has difficulty moving beyond the surface of its story. As the narrator, there is little dimension to Martin, nor much to explain the romantic latency in his own life, except for his advanced age, and perhaps the fact that his wife (Isabelle Candelier) doesn’t have the curvaceous, earthy looks of Gemma. As the movie rolls on, his obsession with Gemma begins to strain credulity, and as for the various men in her life—her husband, her lover, the ex-boyfriend who broke her heart—they too are merely plot pit stops before the film’s inevitable finale.
And as for that finale, the turn from summery dramedy toward something darker doesn’t quite make the pivot. The script tries to have it both ways, presenting itself as a light drama with sprinklings of comedy, while also attempting to retain the novel’s sombre conclusion, and additionally reaching for a resolution that attempts to put the blame on the men in Gemma’s life for her fate. “Gemma Bovery” wants to say that the men around her failed at every turn, and tries to lift all responsibility from the character for her actions. But the film and story aren’t mature enough or developed with enough depth for that payoff to resonate or ring true. The film’s clunky closing gag only underscores that “Gemma Bovery” is more lark than literature.
There is an updated story of “Madame Bovary” to be made, one where perhaps the protagonist has a bit more agency and self-awareness than she is presented with in this incarnation. There is a luxury in Gemma’s tedium that never bridges the gap required to truly appreciate the difficulties she faces, and the twists and turns of the story mostly maneuver with the flexibility of an above-average soap with better production values. “Gemma Bovery” attempts to bring new heat to an old story, but mostly winds up cooling on the sill. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.