To reinterpret Tolstoy: Happy housewives may be happy in their own ways, but bored housewives, it seems, are all like Madame Bovary. Especially if they share (almost) a name with Flaubert’s famous adulteress, the ill-fated Emma Bovary, who yearned for escape from her humdrum life and paid the price.
This soft, pleasing updating of the literary classic brings a beautiful young English matron, Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), and her husband, Charles ( Jason Flemyng), to rural Normandy, where they’ve moved to escape London’s bustle. The immediate source of the film’s material is a satiric graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, the British writer/cartoonist also known for her Far From the Madding Crowd graphic update, Tamara
Drew, which also became a movie starring Arterton. Gemma Bovery’s story, mostly in French sprinkled with some English, is revealed from the sad-eyed perspective of Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), her neighbor across the way. Joubert is the local baker, in semi-retirement from his life as a Parisian book editor, and with his literary leanings, he sees and projects the Flaubert story onto his pretty new neighbor.
Director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) leads us in from the end, where Joubert discovers the distraught Charles burning the departed Gemma’s effects, because they are too painful to keep. While Charles is briefly distracted, Joubert plucks Gemma’s diary from the burn pile and slips it under his coat. From his reading of it, and his occasional narration, we discover in flashback Gemma’s doomed path as it converges with and departs from the life of her famous literary namesake.
Gemma doesn’t quite suffer the passionate discontent of Flaubert’s heroine, but she still manages to find her way into an affair that easily echoes the book’s romance. But Fontaine has a lot more fun with it than Flaubert did. One particularly droll moment has Joubert encountering Gemma on a country lane just as she is stung on her back under her dress by a bee. When, flustered, he tells her that the only way to remove the venom is by sucking it out, she orders him in no uncertain terms to get on with it.
The Boverys’ house turns out to have a mouse problem, and Gemma buys rat poison to get rid of the varmints. Joubert is horrified — the poison contains arsenic, which plays into his fatalistic Flaubert scenario. But the movie’s story has a few twists and tricks left up its sleeve.
Arterton brings a classic English roselike beauty to her character, and the whole cast is good, but it is Luchini’s obsessive, nosy, infatuated baker that makes the dough rise. — Jonathan Richards
Mrs. Bovery, I’m trying to seduce you: Gemma Arterton and Niels Schneider