Arts & Books

Film review: A Flaubert tribute that’s as flaky as French pastry

'Posey Simmonds’s characters are conceived in two dimensions'

The actress Gemma Arterton has form at playing the small-town vamp. In Tamara Drewe (2010), a film based on a comic-strip by Posy Simmonds, she starred as a Dorset girl who went to London for a nose job and a career, and returned to wreak triumphant sexual havoc in the lives of the local men who formerly couldn’t see past her proboscis.

Now she’s back, in similar vein, in the title role in Gemma Bovery – also inspired by a Simmonds cartoon – as a young Londoner recently arrived in rural Normandy with her furniture-restorer husband. The title is, of course, a deliberate echo of Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, whose heroine Emma sought relief from her dull, decent spouse and the boredom of provincial French life in romantic, ill-fated affairs which tugged her inexorably towards tragedy.

The obsessive chronicler and narrator of Gemma’s story is middle-aged Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), who left his Paris publishing job to seek peace as a village baker, but now finds his inner calm heavily ruffled by the arrival of his new English neighbours. His mournful, lustful eyes track Gemma’s every languid movement, and he is keenly alert to any modern-day echoes of Flaubert’s story, to the point of growing anxious when she buys arsenic to kill mice. At first there’s a certain aimless pleasure to be had as the camera dreamily captures the predictable rhythms and scenes of Normandy life: the morning bread-buying, the weekly market, the small vans tootling along narrow country roads. Arterton is a strategically artless femme fatale: she moves through the action with one crucial button on her summer dress undone, and her limpid gaze fastening on a series of admirers, from an aristocratic law student (Niels Schneider) to an insistent old flame.

As the film carries on, however, it becomes ever more apparent that Simmonds’s characters were conceived in two dimensions, and they are having a difficult time struggling into three.

The director, Anne Fontaine, strives for cinematic sunlight to the point at which passion and tension are largely evaporated. Although Joubert gets hold of Gemma’s diary, we discover little of her inner life.

Her husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng), unlike his namesake in the book, seems reasonably charismatic rather than dreary, and the motivation for her love affairs is never made fully clear: even her boredom fails to ignite. It is hard to care about any of the characters, in particular Joubert himself, whose endless snooping and mooching eventually renders him unattractive as the lens through which we glimpse the action.

What results is an amiably contrived sex comedy with a twist, as briefly enjoyable and flaky as a boulangerie pastry. One yearns for the depth of Flaubert’s original, and the chance to feel something.

Three stars

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (21/8/15).

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