It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Gemma Bovery” made me think of “Roxanne,” the fantastic 1987 Steve Martin-Fred Schepisi comic adaptation of Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Both are based on great French tragedies, taking elements from their source and refashioning them. But while Rostand’s masterwork became a comedy in the guise of Martin’s brilliant screenplay, little is done in “Gemma Bovery” to transform Flaubert’s plot. Sure, the events are scrambled, with minor changes here and there, but if you know what happens in “Madame Bovary,” you will not be surprised by this film. In fact, you’ll probably be as irritated as I was by “Gemma Bovery”’s attempts to be clever and meta.
“Gemma Bovery” is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. Posy Simmonds turned Flaubert’s 1856 classic into a graphic novel about British expatriates in the French countryside where Madame Bovary resided. Simmonds is on board here, doing the screenplay with Pascal Bonitzer and director Anne Fontaine. I have not read Simmonds’ work, but I did have “Madame Bovary” crammed down my throat by my high school English teacher. I liked the novel, but thought it was extremely contemptuous of its tragic heroine. My teacher dissuaded me from that interpretation. “Gemma Bovery” made me question if I had been right all along.
While its heroine has far more agency in her choices and her desires than Flaubert’s, she is still punished for them. Like the film’s true main character, Martin Joubert, those familiar with the novel will spend their time mentally checking off items in a list of comparisons. The characters as written and acted are way too flat to inspire much investment. They’re just cogs in a machine that’s trudging very, very slowly to a familiar destination. At least it’s a very pretty machine; the Normandy setting practically begs you to get lost in its beautiful locales.
Since Joubert (veteran French actor Fabrice Luchini) is obsessed with “Madame Bovary” and constantly points out the comparisons between Gemma’s story and Flaubert’s, I’ll need to talk a bit about the book’s details. I suppose 149-year old literature is entitled to a spoiler warning disclaimer and yes, I am indeed rolling my eyes as I write this sentence. So consider yourself warned from here on in.