"a well meaning look at the danger of ultimate fanaticism and literary devotion"
Adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary appear to have had something of a re-emergence in film lately. The tale of a frustrated wife of a country doctor who decides to claim her independence though extra-marital affairs and extravagant spending is the inspiration for two cinematic releases this year: Sophie Barthes’ conventional period adaptation and Gemma Bovery, a markedly less traditional version. Perhaps it’s the rather modern message on debt, or on the risk of romanticism.
The latter film, however, takes a comic look at a tragic novel by showing the drama through the view of an ageing literature obsessive. Joubert, so taken with the classic story, becomes obsessed with his new neighbours whose names and lives seem so coincidentally similar to his favourite novel. What unfolds is a wry but flawed look at what happens when the fanaticism of fiction bleeds into reality.
Directed by Anne Fontaine (Adore, Coco Before Chanel), Gemma Bovery stars Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe, Clash Of The Titans) as the titular character, who seems so much like the Madame Bovary of fiction. With her dull husband, played by an unfortunately criminally underused Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class, Hanna), her life and affairs seem poised for tragedy. We view all this through Joubert’s perspective however, and it soon becomes clear that perhaps his imagination is taking things a little too far in his wish to make fiction true to life. His odd nature is most obvious as we see Gemma Arterton’s character through his perspective: the camera seems to leer at her in a way that has uncomfortable yet realistic overtones of sexual obsession. Arterton herself does well in a role that allows her some breathing space, but ultimately the characters aren’t as developed as they should be. Taking Madame Bovary as inspiration for a light drama means that it contains the bare bones of a very complex plot. As a result, the pacing is uneven and at times very stretched as we get contemplative scenes inspired by the novel without any of the crucial details.
It does offer some treats for those familiar for Flaubert’s text, although unfortunately for an audience here in the UK, this will not cover a great percentage of the general movie-going population and small references are likely to be wasted. Even Joubert’s name is most likely a nod to the 18th century French moralist and essayist on literature, Joseph Joubert, a small but clever connection to Gemma Bovery’s character’s literary interests. Fontaine understands too, just how to make the warped perspective of the narrator obvious, such as the old fashioned clothes donned by the Boverys that only appear to be worn when Joubert sees them.
One standout element is the score by Bruno Coulais, who recently did the fantastic score to Irish animation Song Of The Sea. Here he continues that brilliance with a score that is understated yet effective. Fans of film scores should wait eagerly for his next work, which, if previous efforts indicate, will be a similar delight.
Gemma Bovery is a well-meaning look at the danger of ultimate fanaticism and literary devotion, yet it doesn’t provide enough comedy or steady pacing to make it very engrossing. Literature fans may enjoy the references and Coulais’ score is excellent, but it needs more than that to be a truly enjoyable film.