Film review: Gemma Bovery

The eponymous adulteress steals the limelight in this midly comic meta re-staging of Madame Bovary, writes Michael Joyce.

When life imitates art it rarely gets it right – it’s more Mike Yarwood than Rory Bremner. Joubert, a baker in a small Normandy town (Luchini), gets quite infatuated when a young English woman with a similar name to his literary heroine moves in opposite. As Gemma Bovery (Arterton) grows bored of her new life in the provinces and starts to cheat on her husband, it is as if Flaubert is being re-enacted just for him, but nobody else is bothered by the parallels.

Bovery is also a case of a Posy Simmonds film adaptation imitating a Posy Simmonds film adaptation. Five years ago Arterton was strutting around the English countryside in skimpy blue jeans shorts, the title character in a version of Simmonds’ graphic novel/ Guardian strip cartoon Tamara Drewe, which echoed the plot of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I think the French setting works better – the slightly preposterous caricatures sit more comfortably there. While Tamara Drewe needed lots of magic hour shots of sunrise and sunset to make it look special, Normandy looks great effortlessly and the production is boosted by a really strong cast.

Flemyng is touching as the cuckolded husband, while Luchini is expert at involving the audience in his pathetic obsessions. It’s Arterton’s show though. She is perfect for this role because she has both classic beauty and earthy sexuality. She is, in ye olde FHM parlance, a high street honey: too-good-for-the-likes-of-you lovely and yet a bit common. So when the slightly pitiful Joubert projects his fantasies, both sexual and literary onto her, she embodies both his version and the real Gemma effortlessly.

Simmonds’ work suggests that when life imitates art, it does it as farce rather than tragedy, or rather as polite gentle middlebrow social comedy. When Gemma finally starts to read Madame Bovary, she comments that nothing much happens, but it is interesting. I think I could spring for “interesting” as a description of this film, but it is also kind of meandering, and takes an inordinate amount of time to get through its 99 minutes. What is it for? An epilogue suggests that maybe it was intended as much more comic than was put across.