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Is 'Gemma Bovery' Serious, Slapstick, Tragic, Romantic or Twee?

Unsure of the right tone to take, and weighed down by a dispiriting bunch of characters, Gemma Bovery is, unfortunately, the sum of all its parts

Gemma Bovery

Director: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng
Length: 99 min
Rated: R (15 in UK)
Year: 2014
UK Release Date: 2015-08-21 (General Release)
US Release Date: 2015-05-29 (Limited Release)

Adapted from Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, Gemma Bovery comes packaged as one film but it’s really two and a half: the good, the bad and the ugly recast as the average, the dull and the irritating conceit. Is it serious, slapstick, tragic, romantic, or twee? The answer is all of the above and none at all in a film that never knows quite what pose to strike, as it jumps between a number of positions with wearisome regularity until the whole merry-go-round grinds to a halt.

The malaise that eventually overtakes director Anne Fontaine’s film remains blissfully out of sight at first. French baker Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) occupies the narrative, strolling through life in beautified Normandy. In Luchini’s hands, Martin is an initially charming figure, always ready with a knowing wink for the camera and cheeky grin for everyone else. He manages to float somewhere between hapless and obsessive without falling two heavily into either camp.

It’s the arrival of an English couple at the run-down cottage opposite his house that gets things moving. Taking an immediate fancy to designer Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), and at least a passing interest in her husband, antique restorer Charlie (Jason Flemyng), he sets himself up as her guide while trying, and failing, to avoid becoming too intoxicated by whatever mixture of sexuality and vulnerability she’s meant to be exuding.

From this starting point, the rails split, sending stories shooting off in incompatible directions. A ridiculously keen Flaubert fan, Martin comes to believe that Gemma, based on her name and a few imagined similarities, is the reincarnation of Madame Bovary, and that her life is destined to head towards the same tragic end. This thin device, little more than an excuse for the occasional agonised speech and impetuous decision, is supposed to bring the story together. It fails, leaving half a film following Martin’s lovable rogue, while the other half settles into a dreary melodrama as Gemma’s marriage finds itself buffeted by attractive law student Hervé (Niels Schneider) and horrible ex-boyfriend Patrick (Mel Raido).

Dreary is probably an understatement. There’s not even a frisson of chemistry between Gemma and Charlie, making it hard to care what happens to a relationship that’s build on what might optimistically be referred to as murky foundations. Whether arguing with her husband or running off for trysts with equally tedious student Hervé, there’s only the attractive Normandy countryside to add any life.

Just as the narrative splits between two separate stories with the poorly conceived Flaubert bridge failing to unite them, performances fall into one of two categories: characters are either dull or obnoxious. Most of the Brits fall into the obnoxious category. Flemyng is a little too lifeless to offend but Arterton is thoroughly unlikable. She’s stuck with Carry On sauciness, and whining, an unfortunate mix. Sideshow characters fare even worse, especially Tory toff caricature Rankin (Pip Torrens) who lives with his shallow French wife (Elsa Zylberstein). They bash left-wingers and revel in the accumulation of gaudy belongings as if they’ve just stumbled out of a BBC sketch comedy. And the less that’s said about Raido’s leering sex pest Patrick, the better.

Events are mirrored on the French side. Martin is the only spark, and even he begins to drag before too long. There are only so many times he can go bug eyed before it starts to grate. There’s little to prop up the Gallic contingent otherwise. On top of Rankin’s irritating other half, Martin’s wife Valérie (Isabelle Candelier) is almost entirely redundant and Hervé is deathly dull. He’s such a wet blanket it’s amazing anyone can stand to look in his direction without immediately wanting to wring him out. He even seems to mope through vigorous sex scenes with Gemma that take place across his aristocratic family palace.

With such disagreeable company, a film running to barely over an hour and a half comes to feel so much longer. It’s a shame because when all the extraneous extras are stripped away, it’s actually quite pleasant. Martin, with his unrelenting chirpiness and a grin that borders on the ribald could carry a film. He even succeeds in doing so for brief stretches. There’s also an abundance of attractive backgrounds to while away time, and carefully chosen professions that offer even more. Martin’s bakery is almost unbearably quaint, and Gemma and Charlie’s separate lines of work allow for stylishly ramshackle interior decorating.

It’s not enough though. When describing his beloved Madame Bovary to Gemma, Martin tells her that “nothing happens but at the same time it’s interesting.” Half of that applies to Gemma Bovery. The end result is all style and no substance, resembling a pretty postcard, an advert for holidays in the country, a Sunday evening drama with space for gentle tea breaks and a spark notes version of classic literature. It’s all these things, yes, but is it a good film? No.


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