Directed by Anne Fontaine
Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini and Jason Flemyng
On general release in the UK from 21 August 2015
Surely few 19th-century novels – not even the most popular works of Dickens – have been so often or widely adapted for the screen as Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 masterpiece of provincial adultery, Madame Bovary.
There have been 11 cinematic versions to date, in English, Russian, Bulgarian, German, Hindi and Spanish (from Argentina); their directors have included such eminent figures as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli and Claude Chabrol. (The earliest of these, a Hollywood version retitled Deceit and directed by the long-forgotten Albert Ray, was released in 1932; the most recent, directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Mia Wasikowska in the title role, has yet to reach these shores, although advance word is not enthusiastic.) There have also been seven versions so far for television – French, Italian, German, British and American. And we could add David Lean’s penultimate film, Ryan’s Daughter (1970), a ponderously overblown Irish-set melodrama that lifts a large chunk of Flaubert’s plot without the courtesy of acknowledgement.
None of these multiple versions, it’s generally agreed, does justice to the original. Flaubert’s novel, his first – which he himself termed “a book about nothing” – has proved to be remarkably resistant to dramatic adaptation. Even major film-makers have stumbled. It’s perhaps a little unfair to dismiss Renoir’s 1934 film, since it was drastically cut down from the director’s intended three and a half hour running length, and the original no longer survives. But what we have, with the stagey and unappealing Valentine Tessier in the title role, scarcely suggests a mutilated masterpiece. The pacing is solemn and deliberate, and the whole production suffers from what the critic Roy Armes called “a slightly embalmed air”. Renoir later conceded that “the participants in that venture were all petrified when faced by Flaubert”.
Minnelli’s version, released in 1949, benefits from the casting of Jennifer Jones as Emma Bovary. But it’s hamstrung by the prudish Hollywood censorship of the period, and also by the bizarre decision to place the story within an absurd framing device in which Flaubert (a miscast James Mason), on trial for obscenity, defends himself by relating the entire novel to a remarkably patient court. Chabrol’s 1991 adaptation, with Isabelle Huppert, is handsomely staged but dull; period drama was never the director’s forte.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is Flaubert’s intricately wrought style. A notorious perfectionist, the writer would agonise for weeks over a single sentence, even a single word, until he was satisfied with it. The result is a deeply idiosyncratic style that can infuse and elevate the most banal material; but literary style is an element that is notoriously problematic to translate to the screen (as witness the various attempts to film the works of Joseph Conrad). It’s far easier to transpose the work of writers with a lucid, unmannered style – Stendhal, Kafka, Graham Greene – or those where the dialogue carries most of the action, such as Jane Austen and Dashiell Hammett.
It’s also often suggested that, when it comes to adaptations, there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of a novel and that of the film derived from it: the better the book, the worse the movie, and vice versa. As someone once observed, more good films have been made from the novels of James M. Cain than from those of Dostoevsky. Not, of course, that this invariably works both ways, since a bad novel can easily spawn an even worse movie: consider the screen adaptations of the works of Dan Brown, to look no further.
Is fidelity to the original something to aim for? Lovers of a particular novel will often complain that a screen adaptation has traduced the book, mangling its themes or tacking on an inane happy ending. A classic example would be Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which jettisons the novel’s subtle ambiguities and turns it into a crassly anti-communist fable, far too black and white to be Greene. (Phillip Noyce’s 2002 remake largely made amends.) At the same time, it’s often held that sticking too closely to the original makes for a stilted, over-literary film. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. John Huston’s final movie, The Dead (1987), remains faithful to the mood, the action, much of the dialogue and (in its voice-over) even the narration of the James Joyce short story from which it’s drawn, yet at the same time works superbly as a film.
Anne Fontaine’s film certainly can’t be accused of excessive fidelity to Flaubert. For a start, it is derived not from his novel but from the 1999 hybrid prose/graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. Simmonds – a cartoonist and satirist with a knack for skewering the pretensions of the British middle class, an ear for speech patterns and an acute eye for revealing details (“Handbags”, she says, “are particularly good”) – for many years created a regular strip-cartoon for The Guardian. Gemma Bovery was also serialised in The Guardian before being published in book form. Reworking Flaubert’s plot into a tale of modern-day English expatriates living in the novelist’s native Normandy, it pokes fun at French attitudes no less than English.
Eight years later, Simmonds returned to classic literature for another prose/graphic work, Tamara Drewe, this time taking as her model (or target) Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. In 2010, it was turned into a film, with Stephen Frears directing and Gemma Arterton in the title role. Critical response was mixed, but more favourable than not. So now it’s the turn of the earlier book, again starring Arterton but this time with French director Fontaine at the helm. When it comes to black comedy, Fontaine has form; she enjoyed an early hit with Comment j’ai tué mon père (2001), in which Charles Berling plays a successful doctor whose complacent life starts to crack when his estranged father (Michel Bouquet) re-enters his life. She’s since had success with Coco avant Chanel (2009) and Mon pire cauchemar (2011).
Gemma Bovery, however, feels like a misfire, and the problem can be traced straight back to the source material – Simmonds, that is, to which Fontaine’s script (co-written with Pascal Bonitzer) is all too faithful. Tamara Drewe, while riffing on Hardy, never reminds us of the fact; neither book nor film makes any direct reference to Madding Crowd. Gemma Bovery, by contrast, is constantly waving Flaubert’s novel under our noses, in case we might be too dumb to get the point; characters read it, carry it around with them, repeatedly refer to it. Our narrator, local baker Martin Joubert (played by Fabrice Luchini), becomes obsessed both with Gemma (her arrival from London, he tells us, “marked the end of 10 years of sexual tranquillity”) and with the likelihood of her sharing the fate of her near-namesake. Every time there’s a parallel with the plot of Flaubert’s novel, Martin is there to underline it for us – as he is in Simmonds’ book.
Within this straitjacket, the cast acquit themselves as best they can. Arterton brings her flirtatious sensuality to Gemma, undercutting it every so often with a hint of desperation. Jason Flemyng plays her bemused husband Charlie, tamping down his misery beneath affected absent-mindedness. Luchini, generally a practised farceur, rather overdoes the wide-eyed fixated look, but there’s an enjoyable cameo from veteran actress Edith Scob as an elderly aristo impenetrably armoured in a sense of innate superiority. For the most part, Fontaine maintains a shrewd balance between tragedy and social comedy – although a final silly gag about Anna Karenina goes on far too long. The film has its diverting moments, no question. But overall it would seem that Flaubert’s novel has once again proved itself, even at two removes, to be essentially screen-proof.
Philip Kemp is visiting lecturer in film journalism at the University of Leicester. He reviews regularly for Sight and Sound and Total Film, and edited Cinema: The Whole Story (2011).