Fabrice Luchini (The Women on the 6th Floor, In the House) is one of France’s most versatile actors working in both film and theatre and moving from comedy to the Classics with consummate ease. His performance as Martin Joubert in director Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is one of the highlights of this rather pedestrian adaptation of British cartoonist Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name. In her regular cartoons for The Guardian newspaper, Simmonds is known for her gentle satirical attacks on the British Middle Class especially those with literary aspirations. This tale of an English couple who leave London behind to live in the French countryside is ripe with possibilities for poking fun at both cultures, but there is nothing new on offer. The English are all pretentious snobs while the French are obsessed with food, wine and – of course – sex.
Gemma Bovery is based on Gustave Flaubert’s 19th century masterpiece Madame Bovary considered to be one of the most influential novels ever written. In this updated version Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and her husband Charles (Jason Flemyng) move to a Normandy village just outside Rouen. Joubert (Luchini) has returned to the village to takeover the family boulangerie and when the Boverys move in across the road he is intrigued by the similarities between the English couple and the characters in Flaubert’s novel. He becomes friends with Gemma and watches anxiously as she soon bores of provincial life and starts an affair with an aristocratic young man from the village. He fears Gemma is on the same self-destructive path as Flaubert’s heroine.
Flaubert himself described Madame Bovary as “a book about nothing” which presents a real challenge for any film director. Fontaine chooses to tell the story in flashback through the eyes of Joubert which works well when Luchini is on screen interacting with the other characters, but when he is absent the story turns into your average tale of infidelity, duplicity and mendacity. The story needs Joubert’s wry observations to bring it to life. Alongside Luchini’s performance, the cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne is the film’s other undisputed highlight. Whether it’s Joubert making bread in the bakery or one of the characters walking through the Normandy countryside, he turns each scene into a visual delight.
Tamara Drewe, also with Arterton in the lead role. was the last time a Posy Simmonds graphic novel was turned into a film and it earned a number of plaudits for director Stephen Frears. It will be interesting to see if Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery will prove a hit with audiences on both sides of The Channel.