Quality: ★½ (out of four)
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng
Director: Anne Fontaine
Language: In French and English with English subtitles
Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Theaters: Film Streams
* * *
One of the greatest novels of all time gets a shamefully slight remix in this modern retelling of “Madame Bovary.”
Not only do we get a tepid adaptation of the novel, we get a self-reflective commentary about said novel. This is a movie about life imitating art, but it resembles neither.
The film’s loathsome protagonist is Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), an ex-Parisian intellectual with an obsession with Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” He’s settled into a quiet life as a baker in the same Norman village where Flaubert wrote his classic novel. His bored comfort is stirred when the village gets new residents, an English couple with similar names to the main characters of his favorite book. But Gemma and Charles Bovery’s (Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemyng) parallels to Flaubert’s Emma and Charles Bovary don’t stop at their monikers.
Like the book’s doomed heroine, Gemma is bored with provincial life, has accumulated great debts and is having an affair with a local playboy. Joubert worries that, like Flaubert’s character, Gemma will kill herself in the end.
So Joubert forces himself into Gemma’s life, teaching her to speak better French, to make bread, to understand classic literature. His relationship has three apparent motives: He wants to belittle her for not being better-educated; he wants to save her from a sad literary fate; he wants to pine over her comely figure — his lustful gazes would be creepy were they not so impotent.
The film means for Joubert to be seen as a lovable old coot. I can’t recall the last time I hated a character so much.
Not only does he leer at Gemma while insulting her class and education, he also believes so delusionally that she is the living embodiment of a fictional figure that he spies on her, steals her possessions and intervenes in her affair. This man is mostly a stranger to this woman, and yet he laments, “How to kill someone else’s affair when it gives you grief?”
It’s a shame Gemma is treated as a literary exercise instead of a person because Arterton gives a lovely performance as Gemma. She’s the sole reason to see the movie, her charm often smashing through the empty pretension. But it’s not enough.
After Gemma reads “Madame Bovary,” she tells Joubert that in the novel, “Nothing happens, but, at the same time, it’s interesting.”
“Gemma Bovery” has only the first part covered.
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