Friday, 21 August 2015

MADAME BOVERY

Gemma Arterton brings Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strip to life. A cautionary tale for anyone thinking of breaking out the red wine and going native in Normandy.

Written by Jason Solomons
Biting into a warm baguette from the boulangerie. Strolling over to squish a ripe cheese at the quaint farmers’ market in the Place de la Victoire. Sipping an aperitif while watching the locals play boules. The thought of upping sticks and living the French rural idyll has been a recurring British dream for years; well before Peter Mayle wrote A Year In Provence.

It’s the story told by Posy Simmonds, who has serially skewered British bourgeois manners in her cartoon Gemma Bovery, now turned into a shimmering film starring Gravesend’s finest, Gemma Arterton. I don’t think she got the part just because she shares a first name with the lead character, but it must have helped.

What really swung it was her boot-camp-style immersion in a French course, from which she emerged, impressively fluent, after just four weeks. The on-screen results are charming as Arterton becomes the latest in a line of English actresses – Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling, Kristin Scott Thomas – who’ve found themselves at home in French movies.

Simmonds’ story played with that classic of French literature, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s tale of an unhappy and unfaithful Normandy housewife called Emma, and the new film does the same, as Gemma and her husband Charles’s (Jason Flemyng) dream move from London to a leaky farmhouse in a quiet village goes wrong. Not at first, of course. Gemma thrills at the loaves of bread and the choice of cheese while Charles potters about his shed, smoking and sanding down furniture. All is rosy, until the first drops of rain seep through the roof and the first mouse scuttles out of the larder, a squeaky harbinger.

Meanwhile, Gemma has had a coup de foudre effect on the local baker, Martin, himself having escaped an affluent life in Paris. He is played by Fabrice Luchini, one of France’s most respected actors (so good in films such as Patrice Leconte’s Intimate Strangers and the recent François Ozon comedy Dans La Maison, with Kristin Scott Thomas). Luchini’s Martin is also Gemma and Charles’s neighbour and only too happy to offer help. He is totally taken with Gemma, partly because Arterton does indeed make her nigh-on irresistible and partly because of the Flaubertian irony of the domestic drama playing out over his hedge.

Director Anne Fontaine, known in the UK for her glossy biopic Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, shoots Gemma like she’s just stepped out of the salon. The hair tumbles, the evening sun backlights her, the sugary crumbs from a brioche stick tantalisingly to those full, rosy lips. Arterton is a screen animal, one of the best I’ve ever seen at giving the over-the-shoulder flirty smile. It’s almost become her trademark and it certainly has Normandy all a-flutter.

While Luchini’s Martin provides a constant chorus of somewhat pathetic love-struck awe, he also fills in the gaps for those uninitiated with Flaubert. It’s as if Martin is a frustrated novelist himself, trying to interpose himself in this modern story that mirrors the work of his literary hero.

Gemma-Aug21-02-590Gemma with love-struck baker Michael

So it’s not only jealousy that grips him when he spots Gemma chatting to the foppish scion of the local chateau, but his literary alarm bells ring as he recalls Emma Bovary’s ill-fated romance with the heartless aristo Rodolfo. It’s a playful and clever little film (partly in English, but mostly in French) about life and locale imitating literature, but it has an attractive romantic patina all of its own.

Simmonds’ characteristically caustic character drawings come beautifully to life elsewhere, such as in the wealthy couple from down the road who hire Gemma to do the interior decorating on their new pile. The wife is played by Elsa Zylberstein who perfectly nails the snobbery of the Parisian banker’s skinny wife just moving back after a stint in Notting Hill.

The film does turn darker, the way Flaubert would have wanted it. Simmonds’ stories have a habit of turning nasty: indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that Gemma Arterton was playing another Simmonds sex bomb causing love trouble in a rural idyll, in the Stephen Frears adaptation of Tamara Drewe, based on Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd.

Here in Normandy, Gemma wafts around in a variety of alluring, faintly diaphanous summer dresses until her girlish sex drive (and French fantasies) lead her up the path to the chateau’s back gate.

All this dot-joining shouldn’t distract from the narrative in hand. Gemma Bovery is a very enjoyable soufflé of a summer movie with a bitter and almost inevitable tragic twist, but these little strands and references serve to deepen the film’s textures and tides, the way Flaubert’s own precise prose deepened the realism of his carefully constructed worlds.

If Fontaine’s film ultimately fumbles the tragedy of its ending, it might be because it can’t work out whose tragedy it’s telling – that of Charles, Gemma, Luchini, or of those poor little Normandy villages whose crumbling chateaux and farms have been snapped up by delusional Brits seeking romantic fulfilment in exposed timbers, a bottle of wine and some very smelly cheese.

Gemma Bovery is in cinemas now. See the magazine for Posy Simmonds’ original cartoon strip of Gemma Bovery.


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