It had been several months since we’d seen a film – for me it’s a very easy habit to get out of – so in an attempt to kickstart some moviegoing, I booked to see Gemma Bovery. We’d seen its star Gemma Arterton in Made in Dagenham last Christmas and she was ace – and our paths have crossed(-ish) more recently, more about which I cannot possibly say at this stage. (Although I will later.) So I was keen to see her on the movie screen as I understand that is where she has gained her reputation as a fine actress – although I’ve not actually seen her in a film before. Not only that but neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read, nor seen any kind of adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovery, so we came to this film with no particular expectations or preconceptions. If you haven’t seen the film, and don’t want to know what happens, may I suggest you stop reading and please feel free to return once you’ve seen it.
In case you didn’t know, Gemma Bovery (the film) is based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, about an English couple who move to France and live an existence that parallels Flaubert’s originals. The rather fetching Gemma attracts the jealous attention of neighbour baker, the Flaubert-obsessed Joubert, who gets more and more furious as he spies on her to discover she is having an affair with young local landowner Hervé de Bressigny. Then, when he dumps her, her libido now re-awakened, she also has it off with her ex-boyfriend Patrick, who, coincidentally, just happens to be staying with nearby friends. This spot of how’s your father is also witnessed by the feverish Joubert, whilst husband Charlie, who had at first been oblivious to her wayward behaviour, has stomped back to London in a huff. Gemma wants Charlie back, but, as she is rejecting Patrick for a second time, she chokes on some freshly baked bread that Joubert has given her; and while Patrick is trying to save her, Charlie arrives, beats him up and Gemma croaks.
If you feel that resumé of the story didn’t take the plot details sufficiently seriously, then I apologise. But, really, I found it unutterably silly. When I realised that Gemma was going to die choking on that bit of bread, my thoughts turned to Benny Hill’s 1972 epic recording, Ernie: “A stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust.” Death by Gastronomie. My guess is that the ending was meant to be ironic and moving; I found it lamentable, and not in a good way.
But I’m starting at the end. Let’s go back to the beginning, and the film as a whole. It’s not a bad film; certainly not a good one, but it’s not that woeful either. It’s well acted, well cast, it’s filmed with a nice feeling for French/English liaisons and it has a few moments of brilliance that are very funny and charming. However, it does commit the cardinal sin of being, overall, dull and boring. There isn’t enough of a narrative drive about it; Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine’s screenplay never soars. As Mrs C pointed out, if the extraordinary thing about Flaubert’s Mme Bovery is that nothing much happens, then this film is solidly representative of its inspirational muse. It has no change of pace, no urgency, no energy. It’s all very attractive and superficial but you don’t feel as though you get deep down into any of the characters – except perhaps for M. Joubert, and that’s probably down to Fabrice Luchini’s extraordinarily expressive face. As Ronan Keating might have put it, M. Luchini says it best when he says nothing at all.
The film is a joint French/British venture and, as a result, the conversations are in both French and English, with appropriate subtitling for the bits we don’t understand. Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel that is one of the strengths of the film; you hear the characters struggling to speak in a language which is not their own, or engaging fluently when in their own tongue. It emphasises the “fish-out-of-water” aspect of the characters, like Gemma and Charlie in a foreign country, or Joubert on the edges of a forbidden relationship. Of course, it also gives rise to some gentle comedy, which comes as a welcome relief.
Some of the minor plots and characters end up being the most rewarding to watch; Joubert’s bossy wife and doltish son have some of the best lines and create a very real sense of what Joubert’s home life is really like. The ghastly Rankin couple, with their mock-enthusiasm and refined condescension, expressed with their hideously posh accents, also suggest there might be a more dynamic story lurking beneath their otherwise perfect exteriors. And there’s the problem – in comparison, Gemma, Charlie, Hervé and Patrick are all pretty dull people.
It’s true, Gemma Arterton does put in a charming performance as her namesake. There’s a lot of pouting and posing, and leisurely wearing of summer dresses; so many of her scenes could just segue into a Flake advert. I’m not sure there’s that much evidence of Gemma Bovery’s motivation at any one point – just a general sense of a confined and reserved woman turning, in time, into a mischievous one. Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider and Mel Raido as the three men in her life are virtually interchangeable. One’s good with his hands, one’s got a face like a Hummel figurine, and then there’s the other one. Fabrice Luchini is excellent as Joubert, lurching from antagonised lust to wounded puppy, seeking revenge or running away; it’s a very good portrayal of someone on the edge of a different life but not quite knowing whether to (or indeed how to) move forward. Isabelle Candelier gives a great supporting performance as his domineering and unsympathetic wife and Kacey Mottet Klein is eminently believable as their game-playing oafish teenager.
Sadly all the positives in this film don’t outweigh the negatives, and you leave the cinema mildly entertained, but glad it’s all over.
P. S. Maybe it was a premonition of what was to come, but we both agreed we’d never seen such a dire selection of trailers for future motion picture thrills. It may be some time before we head off to the cinema again….