Gemma Bovery

May 30, 2015
Gemma Arterton in 'Gemma Bovery' (2014)
Gemma Arterton in 'Gemma Bovery' (2014)

Emma Bovary is one of the most enduring characters in world literature, but many would argue no screen adaptation has ever captured the spirit of Flaubert’s masterpiece – even with directors as distinguished as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli and Claude Chabrol. Within a few months there will be a new Madame Bovary, directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Canberra’s own Mia Wasikowska in the title role.

I won’t pre-empt that release but turn instead to Anne Fontaine’s playful, contemporary pastiche, Gemma Bovery, based on a graphic novel by British satirist, Posy Simmonds.

There is a lot to be said for using Madame Bovary as the basis for a new story rather than trying to capture the subtleties of a book that only seems to grow more complex over the years. The scenes that disappoint us in a so-called faithful adaptation produce a thrill of recognition when transplanted into another context.

Gemma Bovery is set in a village in present-day Normandy, which is more prosperous than Flaubert’s Yonville but hardly less provincial. Instead of Monsieur Homais, the pedantic pharmacist, we have Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) the local baker, who acts as the narrator.

In his younger days Martin worked in a Parisian publishing house, and prides himself on his knowledge of literature. So when a British couple named Charlie and Gemma Bovery take possession of a nearby house, his jaw drops. Charlie (Jason Flemyng) a furniture restorer, is much older than his nubile bride, Gemma (former Bond girl, Gemma Arterton), and Martin senses trouble on the way. As the story unfolds the familiar set pieces from Madame Bovary are played out in updated versions.

Martin, who is himself besotted with Gemma (just as all good readers of Flaubert are fascinated by Emma), tries to change the course of events. He knows what happens in the novel and is horrified to think the same fate awaits this British beauty. It is as if Homais had set himself the task to act as Emma’s guardian angel, but the pharmacist was far too self-obsessed to notice the extent of her growing estrangement.

Martin is not only alert to the problem, he pre-empts it, creating problems rather than solving them. In this story, Martin – not Gemma – is the chief victim of that malaise that finds life is deficient by the standards of novelistic fantasy. When he tries to interest Gemma in the story of Flaubert’s heroine, her response is: “She seems pretty wacky”.

In many ways Gemma does not resemble her literary namesake. She breezes around in singlets and shorts, whereas Emma’s downfall was partly due to her taste for fashionable clothing. In this film there is no Monsieur Lheureux to lure his victim into the inferno of mounting debt. Neither is there a child, which Flaubert uses to demonstrate Emma’s habitual preference for a romantic ideal of motherhood over humdrum reality.

Gemma’s lapse into adultery seems to be caused by boredom rather than dreams of any grand passion, but her two affairs allow ample space for Fontaine to play on the events of the novel. An assignation in Rouen cathedral leaves Martin almost apoplectic. When I first saw this movie, at the recent French Film Festival, a literate – and largely French – audience murmured at every echo of the book.

The mock-tragedy of the film is the failure of the imaginary lifestyle that made A Year in Provence so popular. Over the past couple of decades the French countryside has been overrun with refugees from England looking to escape the bustle and squalor of London or another big city. Many have arrived with hardly any French and little understanding of the customs and mindset of rural life. Marriage failures and bankruptcies have inevitably followed.

Anne Fontaine is a patchy director, but Gemma Bovery is a minor triumph, managing the difficult feat of combining comedy with an underlying sense of drama. Too often a dramatic turn tends to sour the good humour of a movie but here the balance is neatly calibrated. One of the crucial elements is the performance of that old hand, Fabrice Luchini, as the obsessive, febrile Martin.

It helps, of course, to be familiar with Flaubert’s novel, but there’s really no excuse for ignorance. In a whimsical manner this film underlines an important truth about Madame Bovary. It is the very definition of a classic: a book that holds up an ever-refreshing mirror to each new generation of readers, and dreamers.

Gemma Bovery
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Written by Pascal Bonitzer & Anne Fontaine, from a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds
Starring Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Edith Scob
France, rated MA 15+, 99 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th May, 2015.