It’s always difficult to create a truly satisfying story if you’re constantly referencing another far greater work of art. If you don’t deal with your material in just the right manner you’re in danger of giving your audience the opportunity to wish they were watching (or reading) something truly great.
And Anne Fontaine’s absurdist sexual comedy set in the Normandy of Flaubert’s much-vaunted novel unfortunately had me feeling all the ennui of both heroines.
Adapted from Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, Fontaine employs Fabrice Luchini to capture the nosy gentility of Martin Joubert, a former publisher who has upped sticks to the countryside to run his father’s bakery.
Much as he did in Ozon’s In the House, Luchini plays a banal man with a deep love of literature, a love that illuminates his otherwise mundane existence and less-than-appealing personality. When the very beautiful Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), a married English woman, moves in over the road, Joubert’s fevered bourgeois imagination goes into overdrive.
Gemma, significantly a talented artist rather than the listless wife of Flaubert’s imagination, is also a romantic soul, a newly wed who has bought into the idea of love and the myth of Brits abroad in French rural paradise.
But the bubble soon bursts when she realises that not only has she moved into a leaky house in the middle of nowhere, but also that her older husband isn’t all she’d hoped for. Just so we’re in no doubt, both Gemma and Martin are seen standing before a window looking longingly out, the rain pouring down. They yearn for something more, but the prospects ain’t good.
So naturally when Gemma begins a steamy affair with the local aristo, an equally easy-on-the-eye Niels Schneider, Joubert becomes convinced that life is imitating art and that he must try and stop inevitable tragic events from unfolding.
The film starts after Gemma’s death when, rather like the widow Charles reading Emma’s letters in the novel, Martin steals her diary and uncovers the truth behind the events leading up to her untimely death. The story’s pulse is generated from our not knowing whether life will imitate art or not – hardly nail-biting stuff.
Meanwhile the camera constantly plays over Arterton’s body in a faintly embarrassing manner, over her full lips, her ample bosom and endless sylph-like legs (or so you imagine the sentence would be in a trashy romance novel).
Arterton is gorgeous, no doubt about it, but though it’s supposed to be comedic, the perspective of a middle-aged crush running wildly out of control under the auspices of literary interest, is actually just a bit annoying.
There are some nice touches and funny moments. Joubert’s dog is constantly trying to hump Gemma’s who, rather unpromisingly for the randy hound, is called Carrington. (The name perhaps a subtle nod to the repression of women as creatives and their status only as objects of the male fantasy that runs through the film – but I think I’m reading too deeply!).
And when Gemma reads Madame Bovary on Martin’s trembling recommendation she cuts through all his witterings to say, ‘Nothing happens but at the same times it’s interesting’ – a concise description of Flaubert’s then-radical style. Plus Arterton always makes a film very watchable; she’s a good, completely unpretentious actress who hides her craft from view.
But despite the cast's best efforts the mix won’t come together and even the music feels ersatz – a sort of pastiche or nod to Ravel’s String Quartet. It’s not original and thus seems a suitable musical accompaniment to a film that doesn’t really have its own raison d’être.
This is a shame as Posy Simmonds’ original is full of natural wit, charm and a lightness of touch that this adaptation was unable to harness.
I recommend reading Simmonds’ graphic novels and the film also introduces the uninitiated and reminds the I-read-it-years-ago brigade what an interesting book Bovary is. But sadly it’s not enough to lift this particular tale from feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a soggy artisan loaf.