Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), a pretty, peaches and cream Englishwoman, casually voluptuous, moves with her new husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng), a furniture restorer and a kind man, to an old farmhouse in a small village in Normandy–the same village where Flaubert created his famous fictional Frenchwoman, Gemma’s near namesake, a century earlier.
In director and co-writer Anne Fontaine’s witty new film, “Gemma Bovery,” based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, the couple is warmly welcomed by their neighbor Martin Joubert (the great Fabrice Luchini), who lives with his no-nonsense wife and typical difficult teenage son. Years earlier Joubert had returned home to take over his father’s bakery, seeking a “peaceful and balanced life,” (but now acknowledges his naiveté: “fat chance”). Gemma and Charlie, escaping the dreariness of England, have an even more romanticized view of provincial French life.
Martin, a Flaubert expert, is soon smitten with Gemma and makes himself useful in order to be near her, helping her acclimate. The audience shares the pleasures that initially charm Gemma–a farmhouse out of a shelter magazine, postcard-perfect village (home to Joubert’s boulangerie) and sun-drenched landscape. But she’s unable to overcome her dissatisfaction with Charlie, for whom she had quietly “settled.”
Gemma begins to dislike her house, enumerating its supposed faults: “cold, damp and riddled with vermin.” She falls for a younger golden boy, Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), a law student, who’s summering solo in his Parisian family’s second house–a chateau, ideal for sexy afternoon trysts. And her sophisticated British ex, who had dumped her, surfaces, a friend of a local upscale expat/French couple, and is very flirtatious.
Plenty of clever parallels with the novel make the film fun but significant divergence prevents it from seeming like just a “shot for shot remake.” Luchini characterizes the comic and ironic film’s method as smuggling “Flaubert out of the past, like Molière in “Bicycling with Moliére.” It’s the same kind of thing: we seek out old texts to breathe new life into them.”
Martin, who calls “Madame Bovary” a “mundane story told by a genius,” is totally aware of the convergence of Gemma’s life with Emma’s and grows anxious for her safety and future. Although his role here is far greater than that of the narrator’s in the novel, he can’t “avoid the unavoidable.” Gemma doesn’t die by her own hand but the scene in which her life ends is a very dark comedy of errors, involving the men circling around her.
The film has a surprise ending so perfect (it’s a wise child who knows his father–and the man’s preoccupation with the tragic heroines of great fiction) that there won’t even be a whisper of a spoiler here.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film, “Heaven Knows What,” spectacularly shot by Sean Price Williams, opens with an extreme close-up of two beautiful losers, young junkie lovers, and a hypnotic manic score. Harley (Arielle Holmes, whose book, “Mad Love In New York City,” inspired the film), too young for her dangerous life to show in her lovely face, loves charismatic, pouty Ilya (the extraordiinarily talented Caleb Landry Jones). And she believes her love is profound, endless, and transcends his often abusive behavior. While he’s roughly dismissing her, she asks, “would you forgive me if I die?” And to prove her devotion, she opens her arm with a razor blade she had earlier panhandled to buy.
There’s no judgment in the Safdies’ sometimes almost too immersive film, but there’s no romanticizing of the characters’ brutal lives either. They are dirty, often affectless, with slack mouths and focusless eyes. They talk too loudly, repeating desperate or furious nonsense, swill alcohol, cough medicine and Coca Cola. Their interchangeable days and nights are controlled by the search for a heroin fix.
Yet the filmmakers also have a deep empathy, if not quite hope, for these street kids, living their almost unlivable, mostly unfixable lives. Sadness, not scorn, is the response to Harley’s shaky inability to thread a needle (she wants to mend Ilya’s torn jacket) and her understanding of herself, addressed to Ilya, in a moving voiceover, “To me you were the sweetest boy in the world…Everything that I am today came from you.”