Well, this is an embarrassing weekend for the multiplex.
Universal is so desperate for a new franchise that they’ve over-marketed the ever-loving shit out of the Minions. They were sidekicks never designed to headline their own movie, and their annoying nature is multiplied by every commercial and promo forced into our faces by Universal. Elsewhere, we’ve got a horror film that looks like a total abomination even by the low, low standards of the found-footage style. Last but not least is the latest offering from a director who was always more style than substance, now out with a film that reportedly offers neither.
Off to the arthouse we go, then. Let’s see what we’ve got this time.
Gemma Bovery opens with Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a failed literature professor who’s been obsessed with “Madame Bovary” since he first read it as a teenager. He’s now retired and living in a tiny Normandy town so he can run his father’s old bakery. He’s also stuck in a loveless yet stable marriage with an old crow for a wife (Valerie, played by Isabelle Candelier) and a boneheaded teenage son (Julien, played by Kacey Mottet Klein).
The story kicks off with the arrival of a British couple who’ve purchased the run-down house next door. And they just happened to be named Charles and Gemma Bovery (respectively played by Jason Flemyng and Gemma Arterton). Almost exactly like the main characters in Gustave Flaubert’s classic book. And they’re living in the town where the book was written. What are the odds?!
Yes, Charles and Gemma go about their lives in such a way that the plot suspiciously resembles the storyline of “Madame Bovary,” all while Martin looks on. Thus Martin is faced with the choice of whether to stop Gemma’s adulterous hijinks (thus saving her from eventual suicide) or let the story play out (so that Martin can keep on vicariously acting out his sexual fantasies about Gemma).
Where do I even begin with this one?
First of all, the plot hinges on the notion of life imitating art to a ridiculous degree. If this was merely a modernized retelling of a classic story, that would be one thing. But no, this is a story about modern people acting out the plot to a 150-year-old classic without even knowing it. That requires so many coincidences that suspension of disbelief is broken from the word “go” and the plot falls apart right out of the gate.
Second, the characters often talk about “Madame Bovary” as a simple and mundane story beautifully told. This implicitly invites the audience to think of the movie in similar terms, which was a horribly pretentious thing to do. More importantly, the movie doesn’t justify that praise. There’s nothing in the visuals, the dialogue, or anything else in the presentation to make it anything more than pedestrian.
Thirdly, this is a story about marital infidelity, and those are extremely tricky in so many ways. For one thing, it’s a romance story at heart, which means that the characters must be sympathetic and sizzling with chemistry so that we can get invested in their relationship. That would be hard enough, but because this is a marital infidelity story, at least one of the central characters has to be unsympathetic. Otherwise, there would be no motivation for the infidelity to begin with. It’s a tough balancing act.
(Side note: 5 to 7 is a notable exception, quite deliberately presented in such a way that all of the main characters were sympathetic. But that was more about an open marriage than straight-up adultery, so it gets a pass.)
This movie goes a very different direction, precisely because the main characters’ actions are dictated by a book. Call it fate, call it coincidence, call it whatever, but their actions were preordained by a book. Thus the characters have no agency in their own story and no motivation for anything they do. They barely even register as characters, since the plot merely pushes them around like paper dolls according to some plan written long ago. Needless to say, there’s no hint at any kind of romantic chemistry to be found. The characters don’t rate as sympathetic or unsympathetic, but merely boring as shit.
The one exception is Martin, who’s utterly repulsive. Either the guy (who’s married with a son, remember) is lusting after a woman a third his age, or he’s interfering with a woman’s love life to keep her from committing suicide because he thinks she’s the embodiment of a fictional character. Or both. Either way, I do not want this man as my protagonist. I want him to deal with his obvious mid-life crisis in a more healthy and productive way, hopefully by seeking professional psychiatric care.
The actors in this movie are all completely unremarkable, in large part because they’re stuck with such awful characters. Gemma Arterton, however, is the standout. Even though her character is just an empty-headed little nothing, Arterton is at least charming and beautiful enough to play a muse who fires up the passion and imagination of all the other characters.
Which is probably because she did THE EXACT SAME FUCKING THING in Tamara Drewe. Seriously, it’s almost the exact same role. Come to think of it, wasn’t Tamara Drewe another modernization of an English literature classic? And both films are based on a book by Posy Simmons? Sweet Mary, mother of God, who the hell asked for a rerun of Tamara Drewe?! Who else even remembers what a piece of shit that movie was?
Gemma Bovery is a bore. The pacing is glacial, the plot is woefully absurd, the characters range from unremarkable to disgusting, and its self-comparisons to “Madame Bovary” are laughably pretentious. I’m sure the filmmakers mean well, trying to reintroduce classic literature to a modern audience, but there has to be a better way than this. Also, if this really is the best that Gemma Arterton can do, she’d better call it quits right now and start over. Definitely not recommended.