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  M.   September 07, 2014

By Mark Adams, chief film critic

Dir: Anne Fontaine. France-UK. 2014. 99mins

An engagingly lush Gallic romantic-drama that updates Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel Madame Bovary to good effect and pitches a glowing Gemma Arterton as a young married Englishwoman finding adulterous love in bucolic Normandy, Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is an enjoyably lightweight film given life by some engaging performances and a glorious pastoral backdrop.

Adapted from Posy Simmonds graphic novel – whose Tamara Drewe, based on Far From The Madding Crowd, was made into a film by Stephen Frears four years ago, also starring Gemma Arterton who seems to be cornering the market for such English rose roles – the film favours melancholic comedy over melodramatic drama as the lust for love sits alongside cross-channel bickering between between the French and ‘les rosbif’.

Whereas Tamara Drewe – which again has Arterton’s lead character romanced by virtually every man around her, and lusted after by a mild-mannered narrator – hit more comedy comedy sweetspots, Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is more gently paced (reflected the mundane aspects of the novel) and therefore may find it harder to reach an audience. But it benefits from Arterton’s genuine sex appeal, which is delightfully balanced by Fabrice Luchini as her neighbour obsessed with the novel and who sees worrying links between her and the fictional heroine.

Luchini stars as genial family man Martin Joubert who has moved back to his family hometown seven years earlier to take on his father’s bakery and shop. When new neighbours move in across the road he is intrigued – Brits Charlie Bovery (Jason Flemyng) and his beautiful young wife Gemma (Arterton) have the same surname as Flaubert’s heroine, and attracted Gemma he starts strikes up a friendship brimming with sexual tension.

While he lusts after her – and even invites her to his bakery for a little bread-making session that brims with clichéd sexual energy as she lustily folds the dough while he leans over her – she may well be frustrated in her rather dull marriage bit has eyes for young and handsome Herve (Niels Schneider), who lives at the nearby chateau, rather than the doe-eyed baker.

While Gemma is overtaken with passion – and things get seriously sexy as Fontaine makes the most of Arterton’s voluptuous physique – so Joubert decides to take matters into his own hands as he decides to try and break up the relationship. But this simply pushes Gemma into the arms of another man – her former lover, played by Mel Raido – which sees Joubert confused and upset that his heroine is behaving in such a manner. But then the story never really tries to explain why Gemma moves from relationship to relationship, except to escape her dull existence and find solace through romance.

There is always a refreshing lack of pretension in Arterton’s performances, and she is unassumingly charming in Gemma Bovary. There plenty of scenes of her wandering through woods with her small dog, dressed in fluttering summer dresses and green wellington boots, and director Fontaine (who made Coco Before Chanel) is not shy on focusing on her physical charms alongside her warm friendliness.

At the same time, Fabrice Luchini is delightful as the genial baker who is mildly obsessed with this physical manifestation of his favourite fictional character. His warm, wide-eyed attraction to her is no simple middle-age lust, but more a man drawn to her simple warmth and openness. The film may lack the dramatic heft of Flaubert’s source novel – and at times finds it hard to balance humour with drama – but it is an engaging and watchable spin on a classic story.