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July 12, 2015 | by  | in Film |
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Gemma Bovery

½ (have half a star for trying, Fontaine)

During this film, baker and all-round creepy guy Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) classes Gustave Flaubert’s original novel, Madame Bovary, as “a mundane story told by a genius”. I’m not sure, then, what the rationale behind director Anne Fontaine trying to retell the same story with a contemporary filmic twist is, unless she counts herself a genius—a notion which this humble reviewer would certainly contest. Fontaine notes in an interview that the French word bovarysme refers to never being satisfied, hoping for something that never arrives. I don’t think she meant it in a self-referential way, but bovarysme is clearly and unfortunately the perfect term to describe her film.

In 1999, there were apparently things going on aside from the girls trying to pull off Christmas in SpiceWorld without Geri. Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, had been published in serial form in The Guardian, and was released in full in book form. By all accounts, it’s meant to be pretty neat: neither just a contemporary adaptation nor a satire, but a semi-independent stab at bringing Flaubert’s tale to the masses.

Fastforward to 2014, and director Anne Fontaine attempts to bring the graphic novel to the big screen. There’s an issue, right away. It seems to me that if you’re going to adapt a graphic novel into film format there should be a particular rationale for doing so—something that the moving image can bring to the story. Take Sin City or Persepolis, both of which embrace their graphic novel roots to bring a unique style and substance to the big screen. Gemma Bovery, though, doesn’t make the grade on either count.

Let’s take style, to start with. It’s pretty enough. The kind of French country cottages that are every over-50 expat Kiwi’s wet dream. Um… the costumes are nice? Grasping at straws here. Although there are some playful elements in the script (including a weird Call of Duty reference), the film’s structure lends itself to lazy voice-over storytelling. The actors are doing about as well as they can when reduced to these kinds of archetypes. The soundtrack is twee. The cinematography is nothing to write home about. Dear Anne Fontaine: Jean Renoir tried to make a Madame Bovary film in the 1930s, and if he couldn’t nail it, you should have left it well alone.

The content of the film seems, again, like a fairly thoughtless process. Given Fontaine’s track record, it seems she’s into making films about the sex, hence Bovery’s appeal. But she hasn’t considered the ins and outs of adaptation. Flaubert’s Bovary was trapped in her marriage, but why doesn’t Gemma just leave? It’s 2014. This is not the way this story needs to be told. The whole premise here is that Gemma moves to the French countryside with her husband and has a bunch of affairs—not exactly difficult to make progressive.

Perhaps this was, though, my mistake—the rookie error of presuming a film by a female director will be a feminist text. Gemma Bovery does this weird thing where Bovery’s creepy neighbour (Luchini) gets off on watching her every move and trying to stop her having affairs with other men: ergo, giving the man the storytelling role and all the agency. In case I’m not being clear enough, this film is like being shoved face first into a male-gaze vacuum. There’s a bonus bit of body shaming, a steamy kitchen scene (think a creepy-as-fuck, not Nigella, kind of way), and a character whose entire purpose is to pressure Gemma into an affair.

Here’s the thing: it could have worked, with the satirical twist of the graphic novel, or by giving the protagonist some power over her sexuality, or even just as another a glossy rom-com, but the film is so damn frothy it’s just bizarre. It might work for some bored housewife demographic (the ones who weren’t brave enough to go see Fifty Shades and be done with it), but I’m certain that if Gemma Bovery had had to watch this film, she would have stabbed herself with a blunt knife instead of choking on a piece of bread.

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