Posy Simmonds’ satiric graphic novel Gemma Bovery — adapted for the screen by director Anne Fontaine (Adore, Coco Before Chanel) — reimagines a modern life for Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the bored housewife who engages in adulterous affairs to distract her from her mundane, unsatisfying life. Unfortunately, Fontaine’s film version doesn’t do enough to distract us from our own mundane, unsatisfying lives. Fontaine’s lead character (played by Gemma Arterton of Runner Runner and that classic modern adaptation Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) can’t evoke much empathy or curiosity because she’s as blank as a paper doll, a vacuous creature whose appetites and desires don’t even seem worth parodying.
The film is framed through the eyes of Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), an idea that probably worked better in the book; here he just seems like a pervert, what with all his creeping around after a woman who’s far too young for him and only tangentially interested in him (she really likes his bread, though). A middle-aged publisher who has left the glamor of Paris for the rural pleasures of Normandy, Joubert bakes his baguettes and loaves every morning and tries to tell himself he is happy with this quiet life with his wife and teenage son and adorably scruffy dog.
But literature remains his first true love, and when he discovers the new neighbors are named Gemma and Charles Bovery — so close to the names in the novel he considers a masterpiece — he begins to fantasize that Gemma is Emma Bovary. Before long her life begins to mimic Emma Bovary’s, at least in Joubert’s eyes (which explains his hysteria each time anybody mentions arsenic).
Making a new mark on a classic novel can be done — witness Joe Wright’s terrific Anna Karenina, so imaginative and energetic and beautifully designed that it overcame a misstep or two in casting. But Gemma Bovery feels tedious and surprisingly lifeless despite the beauty of its French small-town setting. Even when Gemma enters into a relationship with young Hervé (Niels Schneider) — who is supposed to be preparing for his law exams but has chosen a different, more athletic area of study — the passion feels remote. A second affair feels tacked on just to make a parallel with the original novel.
The joke, of course, is that Joubert is the one truly bored with his rural life, inventing drama and helping it along to entertain himself. Gemma Bovery ends on a wry, ironic note, calling attention to the fact that the movie is satire and not supposed to be taken seriously. But maybe a broader sense of humor would have made the movie more fun to watch. As it is, Gemma Bovery is as dry as day-old bread: Not inedible, but why bother with it if you can find something fresher?
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider.
Director: Anne Fontaine.
Screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine. Based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 99 minutes. Sexuality, nudity, language. In French and English with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Tower, O Cinema Miami Shores; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, Silverspot Coconut Creek; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Delray.