Gemma Arterton stars in this good-natured and airy update of Flaubert's most famous novel
Gemma Bovery is two letters away from her namesake in Flaubert’s most famous book, giving us a coy signal that this film will play nudge-nudge games with bored housewifery, adultery and provincial scandal. Posy Simmonds wrote the graphic novel, and this more or less does for Madame Bovary what Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe did for Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. That’s to say, it puts a fragrant Gemma Arterton in the middle of a winkingly updated warhorse of romantic literature, and watches the same old cycles of yearning and seduction play out.
Arterton’s Gemma, a restless English rose, has just moved to a crumbling Norman cottage with her decent-but-dull husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng). It isn’t long before her eyes flicker towards a more tempting male specimen – namely Hervé (Niels Schneider), who isn’t a womanising Rodolphe character but a callow Greek statue of a boy, revising for his degree in a chateau down the road. This English-French co-production, directed by Coco Before Chanel’s Anne Fontaine, is pleasingly bilingual: the trysts play out in Arterton’s faltering French, and the recriminations with Flemyng are in her mother tongue.
On many levels, it would be an easy film to parody. As the newly arrived couple acquaint themselves with daily life in the village, it feels as if fully half the film is going to consist of Gemma Arterton orgasmically sniffing bread. In fact, the local baker, a 60-something bookworm called Martin (Fabrice Luchini), is really the focal character, and a large chunk of the film involves this fellow voicing a mixture of intent curiosity and moral disapproval to his fairly nonplussed dog, a mongrel called Gus, which he naturally pronounces "Goose".
Luchini, one of French cinema’s undoubted treasures, has never missed a chance to eavesdrop on this sort of arch literary exercise, whether as cuckold or Peeping Tom, or even both. Here, not unlike in François Ozon’s In the House, his character fancies himself as a virtual director of the affaire as it unfolds, with worrying implications for both his own peace of mind and, potentially, Gemma’s future – it didn’t end brilliantly for the original Madame B, after all.
Witnessing an encounter in the marketplace between Gemma and Hervé, Martin predicts every move, from their glancing flirtation with a perfume bottle to Hervé dreamily lighting a cigarette afterwards. Martin’s straight, but his eye lingers on this boy with such Proustian chagrin for his own lost youth that his onlooking wife (Isabelle Candelier) wonders if he’s suddenly switched teams.
Arterton may never entirely shrug off her air of head girl, but she does loosen up a smidgen here, and it’s fun to see. Gemma, as a character, is capable of surprising herself with brisk and spontaneous erotic gestures, even if she never quite gets round to fully taking off her bra. A dramatic peak of sorts is reached when she and Hervé manage to knock a priceless Sèvres statue off the table during one of their friskier romps – its head promptly falls off, and Hervé’s only recourse is to have it repaired by Charlie, a furniture restorer who may well have rumbled them already.
This is about as much melodrama as the film can be moved to summon. Fontaine directs with the same pleasant and ambling pace that Stephen Frears gave Tamara Drewe, and equips her film with a similar bench-squad of droll support: Pip Torrens is particularly good value as a drawling British neighbour, placidly content in a kind of ex-pat’s wine-and-cheese coma at all times. It’s hard to take the ending very seriously, but it’s not even clear Fontaine wants us to: everything her film filches from Flaubert – absolutely everything – it filches in a book-clubbish spirit of gossipy jest.