There’s something in the air in the French provinces—a mix of natural beauty and professional boredom, of idleness and opportunity—that, so often in the movies, proves morally and even fatally intoxicating to the denizens of these quiet towns. Whatever this “something” is, Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery,” which opens Friday, crystallizes it. Adapted from a 1999 British graphic novel, which was itself a ludic riff on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fontaine’s film can be frustratingly conventional in its storytelling grammar and confused in its sociological targets. But when it’s on, it skillfully shuffles between comic and sexy, dark and playful, before wending toward a triumphant finish.
Fabrice Luchini, the bourgeois everyman of French cinema, delivers another effortless performance as Martin Joubert, a baker in Normandy whose traditional life and marriage is thrown into flux by the British couple that just moved into the fixer-upper next door: Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arteron) and her antique-restorer husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng). A Flaubert scholar, Martin is taken by Gemma’s charm and her shapely figure, but especially by her name. Acting as her Virgil to the quaint pathways and quality breads of Normandy, he sees in her a bit of the restless, possibly adulterous housewife of her literary namesake.
But is Martin the observer of these similarities, or the orchestrator of them? Is he creating a Bovary where there exists only a Bovery? I’m not sure Fontaine knows the answer, and this is where the film stumbles a bit, from a political perspective. The camera routinely caresses Arterton’s form, and her body seems to distract Fontaine as much as Martin. What begins as an interesting feminist commentary on the carnal delusions of the male imagination becomes a disappointing catalog of Gemma’s life imitating Flaubert’s art. A subject becomes an object, submitting her autonomy to the whims of predestination.
But at least the movie is funny and engaging, every thorny step of the way. When a bee sting forces Martin to suck the “venom” from the back of an allergic Gemma, the scene is right out the Howard Hawks playbook in “Bringing Up Baby;” another moment, involving the sensual kneading of dough in Martin’s bakery, slyly satirizes “Ghost.”
Elsewhere, supporting player Elsa Zylberstein, portraying a local snob, is blessed with some of Fontaine’s most cuttingly funny observations about upper-class pretentions. And by the morbidly winning climax, Fontaine finds closure in a deadpan joke. “Gemma Bovery” doesn’t always have a clear grasp of where it’s going, but it certainly knows how to land a punch line when it matters most.
“Gemma Bovery” opens June 12 at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, the Tower Theater in Miami, and O Cinema in Miami Shores.