A romantic busybody in Normandy becomes convinced a newly arrived English expat will end up just like her literary near-homonym in the blandly middle-of-the-road “Gemma Bovery.” Adapted from the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, author of the Thomas Hardy update “Tamara Drewe,” the script flattens the main characters and makes one nostalgic for Flaubert’s observational acumen. Helmer Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”) emphasizes cheeriness and whodunit elements at the expense of any insightful revision, resulting in a generic drama that could be mildly diverting on long-haul flights. Local play took a precipitous tumble last September after opening at No. 1; kudos to Gaumont for getting it on so many fest programs.
The story unfolds via the first-person narration of Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), recently returned to his father’s village after a less-than-stellar Paris career in publishing. He’s taken over Dad’s bakery with his chatterbox wife, Valerie (Isabelle Candelier), and while kneading bread gives him a certain sensual satisfaction, he’s getting a little tired of small-town life. Then in walks Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), an attractive Englishwoman with a wide smile who’s just moved with her furniture restorer husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng).
Auds unfamiliar with how Emma Bovary ended up needn’t worry, since a prologue of sorts, helpfully related by Martin, starts after Gemma’s demise and then jumps back to her arrival, which electrifies the baker to such a degree that he practically stalks the woman. Since Charlie travels a fair amount, Gemma is becoming bored: Provincial Normandy has plenty of charm for a weekend, but this is full time, and for a young, beautiful Londoner with an occasionally absent husband, life lacks excitement.
Enter Herve de Bressigny (Niels Schneider, “Heartbeats”), a blond aristocrat with a chateau as dreamy as his visage (and a mother in the form of the ever-welcome Edith Scob). Martin compulsively watches as an affair between Gemma and Herve erupts, convinced that Gemma is fatefully following in Emma Bovary’s footsteps. Naturally Gemma’s never read Flaubert, and genially dismisses Martin’s concerns, but when she and Herve break a Sevres angel statuette while going at it on a table, signs are clear that something bad will come of it all.
Fontaine and co-scripter Pascal Bonitzer decided to brighten up Gemma’s character, eliminating any genuine depth to render her the sexual fantasy of Martin’s imagination — bad move, although turning the pic over to Luchini’s aggressively ingratiating narrator could charm auds attracted to a character who can out-French Maurice Chevalier himself. His overt likability makes Arterton’s Gemma even more pallid, despite the actress’ ability to light up a screen. Also weak is Gemma’s relationship with Charlie, and side figures are stock caricatures, types that work fine in 19th-century novels but not their weak updates.
Visuals are unfailingly cheery, awash in picturesque Norman landscapes and sunny encounters, with Gemma and Herve literally outlined in golden light. It’s the French countryside of every foreigner’s imagination, having very little to do with Flaubert’s evocation despite the fact that the pic is set in the same locale where “Madame Bovary” was penned.