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Literary allusion doesn’t save ‘Gemma Bovery’

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Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini appear in “Gemma Bovery,” a French comedy by Anne Fontaine that falls a bit flat. (Courtesy Music Box Films)

A book-loving baker worries that his new neighbor will suffer the tragic fate of his favorite literary character, with whom the young woman shares a name and romantic pattern – sort of – in “Gemma Bovery.” A cute premise and a strong lead performance keep things watchable, but flat storytelling and tonal problems undermine the sparkle in this comedy.

French filmmaker Anne Fontaine, cowriting with Pascal Bonitzer, delivers froth over pith in this semi-eclair that, like the Thomas Hardy-inspired “Tamara Drewe,” is based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. Fabrice Luchini, star of Fontaine’s “A Girl From Monaco,” again plays a bourgeois every-Frenchman with crazy romantic issues.

Martin Joubert (Luchini), a middle-aged baker, lives in Normandy with his no-nonsense wife (Isabelle Candelier) and their ordinary son (Kacey Mottet-Klein). New British neighbors Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charlie (Jason Flemyng) Bovery fascinate Martin. His favorite book is Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and he believes the resemblance between the couple’s names and those of the novel’s Emma and Charles Bovary signals something.

Obsessed with this silly scenario and with the sensuous Gemma, Martin spies on the young woman and shows her how to knead dough. “The end of 10 years of sexual tranquility” is how he describes Gemma’s presence.

With Charlie often away on business, the bored Gemma has flings with a hollow aristocrat (Niels Schneider) and, briefly, an ex (Mel Raido). Convinced that Gemma’s romances, like Emma’s, will lead to suicide, Martin takes action to alter Gemma’s path.

Certainly there is appeal in a comedy based on affection for a novel, and Fontaine delivers some enjoyable material as Gemma, in Martin’s eyes, seems to be channeling Flaubert’s heroine.

As in “The Girl From Monaco” and Francois Ozon’s “In the House,” Luchini is terrific as a man whose self-dissatisfaction has translated into a tinge of nuttiness and perversity. He gives the familiar French character of an older man infatuated with a younger woman enough edge and soul to prevent the comedy from getting tiresome or creepy.

Unfortunately, the story proves too flat and empty to succeed as a souffle, sex farce or picture of ennui. As good as Luchini is, Martin’s fixation with Emma/Gemma cannot sustain an entire film. Arterton can’t work miracles with a character who is little more than an object of desire.

When the filmmakers play the fate card, the results clash with the prevailing lighter tone. What begins as a promising tale of romantic and literary obsession collapses into a gimmick film.

Supporting characters are so undeveloped that the baked goods have more personality. Seldom has bread, which Fontaine displays almost as sensually as she presents Arterton, received so much camera love.

Gemma Bovery
Two and a half stars
Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Niels Schneider, and Jason Flemyng.
Written by: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine
Directed by: Anne Fontaine
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

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