This isn’t, however, simply a case of recycling a winning formula. Where the former was a more or less straightforward contemporisation of Hardy’s story, director/co-screenwriter Anne Fontaine here gives us an outer meta-layer in Martin (Fabrice Luchini), an advancing in years village baker, who is all too aware that life has begun imitating his favourite novel; he can scarcely believe it when his new neighbours’ entanglements begin to mirror that of the fictional 19th century doctor’s wife.
Gemma Bovery (Arterton) is an upper middle class English woman with a knack for standing in perfectly picturesque natural light (full credit to cinematographer Christophe Beacarne) who has moved with her antique restorer husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng in another strong, understated everyman role) to rural France. Interior design is her passion, which she’s soon able to make a living off of the local bourgeois, chateau dwelling expats. Despite all this she soon becomes bored and restless, leading to complications and drama - which our quietly besotted, nosey and somewhat unreliable narrator Martin does his best to steer her clear of.
The film repeatedly references the book, with characters praising Flaubert’s ability to hold the reader riveted even when his plot isn’t moving. The film however doesn’t have this power, and it’s all the more unfortunate for it to keep drawing our attention to the fact. It’s doubly distracting when the viewer finally figures out that the themes of the novel have (presumably, from what evidence Martin gives those of us who have never read it), so little bearing on the film’s real point.
This is a curious misstep for Fontaine, normally so right-footed in material like this (COCO AVANT CHANEL; ADORE). Despite strong performances, muddy characterisation and an inconsistency of tone (the more successful, comic scenes are pretty much confined to bookending the film) will leave some scratching their heads. Fans of French rural scenery however, will be pleased.
GEMMA BOVERY is released May 28 in Australia, August 15 in the UK.