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Gemma Bovery (2014)

Directed by Anne Fontaine

5 stars

From the book by Gustave Flaubert, but more directly from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, comes this re-telling of Madame Bovary.

In a quiet village in modern-day Normandy lives baker Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a former literary editor whose passion for 19th century literature was evidently too exciting for him. His peace of mind is disrupted by the arrival of an English couple, the dour Charles Bovery (Jason Flemyng) and his vivacious wife Gemma (Gemma Arterton).

Unlike Flaubert’s novel, we are in no doubt from the outset about the identity of our narrator. Joubert excitedly recounts every parallel – real or imagined – between the novel and the English Boverys. When Gemma purchases some rat-poison to deal with a rodent problem, Joubert flies into a rage that is as much paternal concern as anger: he feels sure he spotted the means she will use to end her life.

Each affair she embarks on simply confirms to the baker that life is imitating art, but he cannot quite see what his own part is to be in the tragedy that is unfolding before him: lover, or killer, or both.

This movie is one of two adaptations of Madame Bovary showing at TIFF, and it is worth considering why this one works so well, and the other one (a review can be read here) does not.

Posy Simmonds’ story is at least as much comedy as tragedy, and Fontaine’s film realises this beautifully. Whether poking fun at bourgeois pretensions, or depicting the consternation of Joubert and his family, the movie has some very funny moments. But it is a tragedy, and Gemma will die (we know this at the start of the movie).

Where the other adaptation depicts its heroine as a tragic figure throughout, in this film Fontaine, and especially Gemma Arterton, make her an irresistibly, luminously, joyously sexy, appealing woman. By seducing the audience (we all become Martin Joubert, to some degree) we feel her loss all the more keenly.

The movie doesn’t leave us downcast for long, with a lovely return to humour in the last couple of minutes. Altogether wonderful.

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