Monday, June 1, 2015

Gemma Bovery

Anne Fontaine, the director of the scandalous and sexy “Adore” (2013), takes us to provincial northern France, near Rouen in Normandy, for the clever (if slight) “Gemma Bovery.”

Gemma Arterton, an actress I have deeply disliked in several other films (most notably Stephen Frears’ 2010 abortion “Tamara Drewe”), plays the titular minx, a contemporary re-incarnation of the Flaubert character with whose name hers rhymes. She moves into town from London with milquetoast hubby Charlie (Jason Flemyng), a restorer of antiques. Across the street lives the village baker, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), who is instantly (and, to his wife’s chagrin, un-hide-ably) entranced by her form and, later, giddily nonplussed by the correspondence between her amours and those of Madame Bovary herself.

The veteran Luchini carries Arterton. He’s nondescript enough to serve as an Everyman figure, but with a keen wit and intellect that adds a frisson of excitement to the goings-on. We throw in with him as he alternates between hidden observation and active intervention in Gemma’s affairs, particularly one with a rich and bored university student (Niels Schneider) that bears the Fontaine imprimatur of frank sexuality.

Luchini followed up a miserable picture called “The Women on the 6th Floor” (2011) as Catherine Deneuve’s ogre of a husband, the focal point of the hilarious first half of François Ozon’s “Potiche” later that year. In 2013, he reappeared here in Ozon’s “In the House,” as a high school teacher who encourages a talented student’s depredations before suffering them himself. Last year, he wrote and starred in the mostly funny “Bicycling with Molière,” which shed rare cinematic light on the work of actors grappling with classic texts. (He’s become a reliable indicator of a mildly meritorious movie.)

As Luchini recedes in the last third of “Gemma Bovary,” Arterton has trouble sustaining our interest in the soap-operatic fate that befalls the lady. But Fontaine comes back with a deliciously clever coda that works on a meta level, reminding us of the fundamental silliness of the exercise we’ve just undertaken.

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