Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Fontaine and Luchini are back with GEMMA BOVERY-- and our Emma is all the better for it

That endlessly bored bourgeois young woman, Emma Bovary, returns to the screen this week in the first of two new incarnations. While the second, starring Mia Wasikowska, opens mid-June and is said to hew much closer to the Flaubert novel on which it is based, Anne Fontaine's new comedic twist on the tale has given me and my spouse the most enjoyable time we've had at the movies so far this year.

Fontaine, shown at right, both directed and co-wrote (with Pascal Bonitzer, from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds) the film, and her surprising and engaging stamp is all over this delectable little movie. This is a filmmaker who loves to tease her audience, setting us and our bourgeois notions up for a fall, often in the most hilarious and provocative ways (see Adore, My Worst Nightmare, The Girl from Monaco, and Dry Cleaning for a nicely varied taste of Fontaine's offerings).

Here she takes a number of Flaubert's notions about character, class, women, men, economics and sexuality, and whips them into a frothy, bubbling delight. What's particularly new and wonderful is how she uses the novels (Simmonds' and Flaubert's) to hold a mirror up to some of the differences between British and French society.

In Fontaine's tale Madame Bovary becomes Gemma Bovery (note the change of an "a" to "e"), an English lass recently married to a man who restores antiques (how nice to see Jason Flemyng, above, in a big, solid role again), with the two of them now coming to live in the charming French countryside.

As Gemma, British actress Gemma Arterton (above) does yet another bang-up job in a role that seems absolutely made for her. From St. Trinian's through Tamara Drewe to the more recent Byzantium and The Voices, this fine, young and very beautiful actress keeps using her major skills and looks in increasingly diverse roles. This, along with Tamara Drewe, may be her best performances to date. The actress seems looser, freer, yet much more complex here than most of her roles have so far allowed.

Ms Fontaine's other ace-in-the-hole, as often of late, is the performance of her ex-main-squeeze, Fabrice Luchini, shown above and below, in the film's actual leading role. Luchini plays a local baker so smitten with Flaubert's masterpiece that he finds himself falling in love with Gemma, even as he himself becomes a kind of Bovary character --bored with his own provincial life and struggling to latch on something better.

One of the France's finest actors and always a joy to watch, I would say that Luchini outdoes himself here -- except that you could say that about every one of his performances, from Claire's Knee onwards to the more recent Paris, The Women on the Sixth Floor, In the House and Bicycling With Moliere. To name but a few.

As bubbly, fun and funny as the film consistently is, there of course remains that dark side (as there always is in a Fontaine film, as well as -- in spades -- the original Flaubert). We know from the beginning that Gemma is deceased. How and why, however, remain a mystery that is solved -- wonderfully, wackily, sadly, ironically -- only at the finale.

Meantime, we get a supporting cast made up of some terrific performers, chosen and directed with superb flair and finesse. Look for Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider (above, left), Edith Scob and Mel Raido, each of whom does a fine job of bringing to life, often with very little screen time, the character in question.

Lots of ideas scatter and fly from the screen as the movie unfurls, chief amongst them, perhaps, is that of woman as sacrificial lamb to male desire. But don't let me turn you off with too much weighty theme, for that is but an added inducement in a film that has everything: romance, sex, intelligence, charm, humor and sublime deftness. Ms Fontaine maintains a tone here -- light, satiric, tricky and consistently surprising -- that could hardly be bettered.

Gemma Bovery, from Music Box Films and running a sleek 99 minutes, open this Friday, May 29. In New York City, you'll find it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema. In Los Angeles, look for it at The Landmark in West L.A, as well as at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5.  Soon it will be playing all around the country. Click here and scroll down to see currently scheduled playdates, with cities and  theaters.

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