Directed by Anne Fontaine
Opens May 29
Forgettable and false, Gemma Bovary is the second movie adaptation of a Posy Simmonds graphic novel following 2010’s Tamara Drewe. Both films star beautiful yet bland Gemma Arterton in their title roles, and both feature polite takes on their 19th century literary classic-inspired source material: Tamara nods to Far From the Madding Crowd, while Gemma explicitly references the work of a certain French author who could have taught Simmonds, screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer, and director Anne Fontaine a thing or eight about transforming tawdry melodrama into something sublime.
Because its debt to Madame Bovary is placed at the narrative forefront, Gemma attempts—the operative word—a commentary on our innate desire to spin stories and life’s uncanny ability to imitate art. Blissfully ignorant of coincidence, Gemma and her husband Charles (Jason Flemyng) move from Britain to the provincial French village where Flaubert wrote his masterpiece. Local baker and literature fanatic Martin (Fabrice Luchini) not only sees something of Emma’s repressed longing in Gemma, but also notices that the English woman begins walking the same ill-fated path as her quasi-namesake when she meets younger, more handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider), a law student living alone in the family manse. Due to boredom, unrequited lust, and a need to make Flaubert’s tale come alive, Martin secretly intervenes in events, which—only partially because of his machinations—end in disaster.
And that’s the main problem with Gemma. The film says nothing any great modern or post-modern work hasn’t already said about the confluence of fiction and actuality—indeed, Madame Bovary itself made this point—even as its mores remain antiquated. For all its clever allusions and wryly expressed psychology, Simmonds’s work is sheepishly moralizing: rather than receiving punishment from their noble counterparts, her philanderers and adulteresses are instead eradicated via ridiculous deus ex machina devices. (According to the story’s bizarre ethical system Gemma cannot be forgiven her transgressions, while the equally suspect Martin is unconvincingly absolved of his.) Like Tamara, Gemma concludes with a deceptive narrative trick to veil a musty message, but an otherwise MOR presentation (postcard cinematography, tasteful T&A) renders its core values readily transparent.