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The title character, played by Gemma Arterton, left, is seen by Fabrice Luchini’s Martin as the doomed heroine incarnate from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine
Directed by
Anne Fontaine
Starring
Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemyng
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

The exclamation "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" is attributed to Gustave Flaubert, creator of the 19th century's original desperate housewife, but this is not Flaubert's Madame Bovary – it's an adaptation of the 1999 graphic novel by English cartoonist Posy Simmonds. Hers is a transmogrified Flaubert, recast, upturned and rich with observational and satirical contemporary details.

To make Gemma Bovery's meta-intentions explicit, director Anne Fontaine (Coco Avant Chanel) invokes the author in the film's first moments. "Joubert, c'est moi. Martin Joubert," is how the ex-Parisian books editor, now returned to his rainy Normandy hometown as country baker, introduces himself. As he mixes dough, he listens to the radio – the hosts are earnestly discussing the symbolic use of characters and how desire and death are intertwined. (Evidently in France, where the novel is force-fed during adolescence, Flaubert is fodder for pop-culture discussion.)

Just thinking of the novel now makes Martin burn his boules. By way of explanation early on, Martin (the superb Fabrice Luchini) briefly breaks the fourth wall, chiefly to involve the audience as culpable participant in the events that follow. For the rest of the film he narrates in flashbacks from his own memories, guided by diary entries, and confides (aloud, again for the audience's benefit) mainly in his dog.

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It all begins when English newlyweds Gemma (Gemma Arterton from The Voices and, for the purposes of this film, also known as what happens when English rose meets insouciant French girl) and affable Charlie (Jason Flemyng) move in across the street. For Martin, complacent in his daily routine and prone to bovarysme, their arrival is too good to be true and he becomes convinced that his neighbours are modern versions of his beloved characters – and specifically, that Gemma, regardless of her decisions, is the doomed heroine incarnate.

Martin and Fontaine's camera both cast sidelong glances at the magnetic Gemma, who is all stray tendrils of dishevelled hair clinging to nape and perennially clad in fluttery, knee-grazing, floral shirt-dresses – these allow the curvaceous Arterton to gamely and literally strain and burst at the seams as Martin's heroine-fantasy incarnate. The hitch is that sensuous Gemma (who has all the intelligence and charm her fictional counterpart lacks) has no ennui; she also bursts with joie de vivre, happy with her husband even as the rain drips into their dilapidated house.

The bored 19th-century Emma's passion for shopping in the novel manifests in the contemporary film as gourmandise. This means frequent visits to the village bakery, where Gemma goes into suggestive ecstasies, enthusiastically sniffing and tearing into fresh bread. Martin drools. Despite his obvious lust, Martin and Gemma become friends – he teaches her bread nomenclature and in one surely intentionally ridiculous scene she kneads bread as one only can in pure fantasy. (The movie itself is sensuous, too – wind rustling leaves and lovers' rhythmic gasps and sighs not unlike the sound of Charlie – a doctor of antique furniture – rubbing sandpaper on wood.)

Innocently enough, Gemma also befriends the handsome young Hervé – and here Madame Bovary and her lover Rodolphe again criss-cross in the projection of Martin's vivid imagination. There is nothing for the disaffected Martin to do but intervene (or so he believes), tragically taking a page out of Flaubert and executing it, almost to the letter. "I feel like a director who has just cried action," muses the voisin voyeur as he recites passages of the novel to himself ("she was waiting for something to happen"). As the movie progresses, the quotations elide with Martin's narration of the unscripted – but no less inexorable – turn of events, just as the characters' comical exchanges commingle broken English, French and Franglais. The comedy-of-manners scenes – always over food – lampoon the cultural misunderstandings about carbs, the weather, the French wine. The memorable Wizzy, for example, is another fellow expat villager – a whippet-thin anglophile married to a Brit, a vegetarian who subsists on almonds and the wasabi she imports from London.

But can they escape the novel's fate? Fontaine modulates the expectations and dread – as Bruno Coulais's original score suggestively and playfully plucks at strings. The director also amuses herself, with the help of costume designer Pascaline Chavanne, with fleeting but carefully chosen winks at Flaubert's novel; in one scene she lingers on a glimpse of leg between Gemma's long hem and lace-up ankle boot, as in the novel, and without spoiling the movie's satisfying coda, another wardrobe choice reinforces a moment of cunning situational literary comedy.

In hindsight, Martin's riff on good ol' Gustave gives away how the film's title is a misnomer – Arterton is ravishing but her Gemma is a convenient projection. Fontaine's film belongs to impish, meddlesome and eventually, chagrined Luchini. In François Ozon's In the House, the actor had a similar role as a rueful, meta-lit observer who (again via the great books) knows and dreads too much, but here Fontaine restrains him from a tendency to deadpan ham (well, except for the histrionics about rat poison).

Madame Bovary is required reading in school but even for those unfamiliar with the details of the classic, Fontaine's flirtatious pastiche stands on its own. For Flaubertians, however, it offers up even more droll entertainment. Though admittedly some of the laughs will be from recognizing their own cleverness.

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Gemma Bovery opens Dec. 5 in Toronto and Vancouver, and in other cities on later dates.

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