Gemma Bovery first saw light of day as a strip cartoon/graphic novel in The Guardian by esteemed and erudite cartoonist Posy Simmonds, she who used to write of the adventures of George and Wendy Weber, Tamara Drewe and many more.
Tamara Drewe was made into a film starring archetypal British beauty Gemma Arteton, so it is perhaps no surprise that the star of the Anglo-French big screen adaptation of Gemma Bovery is the self same Ms Arteton, the very epitome of perfect British womanhood.
But more of that in due course. It’s scarcely disguised that Gemma Bovery is a satirical reworking of Gustave Flaubert‘s classic 1857 novel Madame Bovary, using English expatriates as the strangers coming to live in an impossibly idyllic Normandy village (I mean – for Emma Bovary read Gemma Bovery; not taxing of the imagination)
The baker and the Bovery’s new neighbour Martin (a nod to the character Rodolphe Boulanger in the original novel) is a keen fan of Flaubert and does not take longer than it takes to bake a batch of baguettes to realise the best parallels between the young couple (Arteton and Jason Flemyng) and their Flaubertian counterparts.
In short, he sees tragedy coming, and the affairs that ruin the lives. It is all foretold so Martin Joubert sees the worst: the same death for Mme Bovery as Mme Bovary, namely suicide, though the advantage of doing a sort-of remake is that you can also remodel and change bits of plot in the process. This does not make the ending any happier, though a touch of irony is added to the mix for good measure.
The tone is light and mildly comic throughout, thanks to director Anne Fontaine‘s steady touch, but the weakest element is undoubtedly that the film is made half in French (with subtitles) and half in English (presumably played with subtitles in France.) It doesn’t know if it’s coming or going, much like the car crash televised adaptation of Peter Mayle‘s much-loved A Year In Provence. where the unfortunate John Thaw found himself utterly miscast and providing a simultaneous translation.
My advice in such situations is to ignore language difficulties entirely. I’d have preferred it almost entirely in French, apart from when the English characters are talking amongst themselves, in preference to the schizophrenic will-they-won’t-they mélange.
Luckily, the leading French actor is Fabrice Luchini, who handles Martin with such self-effacing charm you couldn’t possibly not like him. He is certainly a match for the delightful Arteton, and much the more personable when compared to Flemyng’s somewhat cold and unloveable Charlie. Luchini’s Joubert cares desperately and worries but appears to outsiders prurient, particularly about Gemma’s mad and decidedly passionate affairs.
The first of these is with the young and wealthy Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), but no sooner has she scared him off than Gemma is hobnobbing with arrogant ex-boyfriend and food critic Patrick (Mel Raido), much to Martin’s alarm.
Bear in mind this is a movie that made roughly half its budget back at the box office, a fact you might find surprising in view of Arteton’s winsome delights, and the fact that every shot of rural France looks absolutely ravishing – right down to the crusty loaves baked (allegedly) by Joubert. The charm alone cannot compensate for a lacklustre script and that weird French-English thing. It is sadly a film unresolved, in spite of Simmonds’ excellent raw material.