'Gemma Bovery': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A breezy and enjoyable modern-day take on Flaubert’s classic story

Gemma Arterton plays a new kind of Bovary in Anne Fontaine’s Toronto world premiere

The time period and spelling may be different, but Gustave Flaubert’s most famous creation is very much alive in Gemma Bovery, a breezy postmodern update of the classic novel that replaces the book’s darker passages for tongue-in-cheek laughs and plenty of eye candy — whether it’s the sprawling Gallic countryside, a bakery filled with boules de pain or else Madame Bovery herself.

Adapted from Posy Simmonds’ popular graphic novel, this enjoyable outing from hit-or-miss director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Adore) stars British bombshell Gemma Arterton as the latest, and one of the sexiest, incarnations of French literature’s favorite desperate housewife. But it’s co-star Fabrice Luchini, playing both neighbor and narrator, who winds up stealing the show, providing an amusing portrait of a man whose dual obsession with Flaubert and the woman next door leads to no good. Rolling out in France after a world premiere in Toronto, this handsomely mounted production should score a decent hit for Gaumont at home and abroad.

After quitting the world of Paris publishing, Martin Joubert (Luchini) moves back to his Normandy hometown to take over the family bakery, bringing along his nagging wife (Isabelle Candelier) and nitwit of a son (Kacey Mottet Klein). Nothing much happens in their humdrum little village until a newly married couple moves into the country house across the street: the British expat Charlie Bovery (Jason Flemyng) and his gorgeous younger wife, Gemma (Arterton).

Immediately seduced by Gemma’s beauty, as well as by the fact that she has nearly the same name (and as he will soon learn, same life) as Flaubert’s heroine, Joubert starts keeping tabs on his new neighbor while striking up a friendship that’s filled with underlying sexual tension, at least on his part. Inviting Gemma to an impromptu baking class in the back of his shop, he watches her get all hot and sultry as she kneads her first baguette, in a rather over-the-top sequence that recalls some of the kitchen hijinks in Chocolat. (This film could be retitled Pain au chocolat.)

But just when Joubert thinks Gemma might be falling for him, she meets Herve de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), a dashing aristocratic wastrel shacked up in his family's nearby chateau. Soon enough, and just like in the book, Gemma and Herve begin a torrid affair as the nosy Joubert watches from afar, and sometimes up close. Things then take a turn that recalls the downward spiral of the original Madame Bovary, though there are twists and a few laughs in store before the film winds down.

Written by Fontaine and Jacques Rivette regular Pascal Bonitzer (who’s directed Luchini in a few of his own films), the script somewhat departs from Simmonds’ original text to favor Joubert over Gemma, who’s mostly seen from his point of view and never develops into a full-bodied personality. In that respect the movie also differs from the Flaubert original, while being much more lighthearted, though in both cases the Gemma/Emma character remains a bit of a cipher — a person onto which the reader or viewer (or Joubert) can project their own thoughts and desires.

Given the casting choice, that won’t be difficult, and not since Jennifer Jones donned a corset in Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 version has a Bovary been this downright sensuous. It’s rather too much at times, and the shapely Arterton (Tamara Drewe) never really conveys the provincial malaise and stifling domestic existence that both Flaubert and Simmonds captured in their works, even if she aptly portrays a woman who's never quite sure of her life’s choices. (As a contrast, it will be curious to see how Mia Wasikowska fares in Sophie Barthes’ new adaptation, also playing in Toronto.)

But her physique gives plenty of excuses for French comic ace Luchini (Bicycling With Moliere) to do his usual deadpan shtick, and Gemma Bovery is very much centered around his performance, offering up more laughs than any Flaubert-inspired work thus far, with Luchini delivering his one-liners in French, English and hilarious Franglais. As pure entertainment it certainly does the job, although much of the text's existential weight is lost in the process.

Cinematography by the great Christophe Beaucarne (The Blue Room) captures the Normandy settings in crisp widescreen compositions, while production designer Arnaud de Moleron (In the House) provides a varying array of old world interiors, with the Boverys' own house designed as an expat's wet dream of rustic living.

Production companies: Albertine Productions, Cine @, Gaumont, Cinefrance 1888, France 2 Cinema, British Film Institute
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine, based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds
Producers: Philippe Carcassone, Matthieu Tarot, Sidonie Dumas
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Composer: Bruno Coulais
International sales: Gaumont

No rating, 99 minutes