Posy Simmonds couldn’t have had actress Gemma Arterton in mind when she wrote “Gemma Bovery,” her darkly comic 1999 spoof of Gustav Flaubert’s classic tragic 19th century novel “Madame Bovary,” about a bored provincial housewife whose affair has tragic consequences. But the overripe Arterton (“Prince of Persia”) has long seemed like someone dreamed up by a graphic novelist.
And since Arterton’s winning turn as Simmonds’ “Tamara Drewe,” a modern take on the 19th century English novel “Far From the Madding Crowd,” she was fated to become “Gemma Bovery,” the object of desire, manipulation and conjecture in the small town in Normandy where she and her new husband (Jason Flemyng) move.
It is “a place where the art of living is taken seriously,” our narrator, Martin (Fabrice Luchini, of the imports “The Girl from Monaco” and “Potiche”) tells us. A droll one-time editor of academic books, he and his wife have taken over his father’s bakery. And knowing that Flaubert was from Normandy, he is frankly delighted at having a bored beauty whose name sounds like Emma Bovary move in next door. He abandons his “10 years of sexual tranquility” to fantasize over Gemma, a woman “waiting for something to happen.”
Martin, narrating in French (with English subtitles) feels “like a director” when Gemma, sure enough, is tempted by the rakish law student Herve (Niels Schneider). Martin is content to lust from afar, but he knows how “Madame Bovary” ends. He frets over her indiscretions and flips out when he sees she’s bought arsenic to contend with the mice who invade her tumbledown farm home.
Director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) plays up the sensual pleasures of teaching a beautiful woman how to knead dough, and the adorably deadpan Luchini makes a wonderfully guilty near-omniscient narrator. A French baker must cope with foreigners with gluten allergies and assorted other bread phobias without rolling his eyes. Martin tries to manipulate events to change the outcome and stumbles into the occasional awkward encounter with the luscious Gemma — who knows her effect on men in general and Martin in particular. She finds the “Bovary” novel “wacky,” and needs the occasional rescue — a bee sting that must be sucked out, etc.
“Gemma Bovery” manages a few surprises, even if you know the Flaubert novel Simmonds was sending up. The Norman countryside, Luchini’s slack-jawed incredulity at the coincidence of having a sophisticated and sexy Gemma move to the land of Emma and Arterton’s guileless abandon in the role she was born (or at least named) to play — desired by and desirous of men who will be her ruin — make “Bovery” a fun riff on “Bovary,” even if no one ever confuses it for the earlier classic.