This contemporary retelling of Gustav Flaubert’s 1856 tragic tale Madame Bovary is something of a dull affair despite its lashings of sex, infidelity and comedy. The film is based on the popular graphic novel written in 1999 by Posy Simmonds, who previously wrote Tamara Drewe, which was filmed starring Gemma Arterton.
Arterton appears here again as the eponymous heroine in this playful version of the classic tale about a modern woman undone by her passions. She plays Gemma Bovery, a bored English housewife who has moved to Rouen, a picturesque small village in rural France, for a change of pace, and to also hopefully spice up her marriage to her rather dull husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng). But she soon finds herself engaged in a torrid affair with Herve (Niels Schneider), a rich, handsome and virile young student.
Gemma’s sexuality and activities also arouse the interest of her neighbour, the local baker Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), who is fascinated with Flaubert’s novel. When he notices Gemma’s surname, he compares her to Emma, Flaubert’s tragic heroine, and becomes obsessed with her activities. He also worries that Gemma’s life may end as tragically as Flaubert’s heroine and he tries to prevent her suffering a similar fate, which leads to some comically awkward moments.
Joubert narrates the tale, and events largely unfold in a series of extended flashbacks. The film opens with Charlie burning Gemma’s possessions. Martin manages to salvage her diary from the ashes, and begins to read it.
The film has been directed in lazy fashion by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel). However, it does have a beautiful visual surface, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of her regular cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, who captures the natural beauty of the picturesque settings.
And while the script, from Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer, pays homage to Flaubert’s novel, the end result is a little laboured. Unfortunately we don’t get much insight into Arterton’s character here, and her performance is largely one dimensional. Luchini is a delight and brings some much needed energy and comic timing to the rather bland material. There is one scene in which Gemma and Martin knead some bread together, which does for breadmaking what a certain scene in Ghost did for pottery!
But purists may do well to wait until the more faithful and traditional film adaptation of Flaubert’s novel, starring Australia’s Mia Wasikowska, arrives in cinemas a little later this year.
Director: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider
Release Date: 28 May 2015
For more of Greg King’s writing on film, check out his blog at filmreviews.net.au
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television