Gemma and Mia – Madame(s) Bova(e)ry

Gemma and Mia have both been the tragic wife in two new takes on a French classic, Flaubert’s eternal ‘Madame Bovary’. They both, the actresses and the movies themselves, bring something very individual in doing so – one much more than the other.

Mia Wasikowska’s vehicle is by far the straighter retelling of the two. The Canberran is on an upward trajectory since her debut in local production ‘Suburban Mayhem’. Prior to that she’d had some appearances in the usual soaps, had given up a promising future in ballet and claims to owe her cinematic poise to her parents. Both professional photographers, they were constantly placing her before the camera lens. And no wonder – what a photogenic young lady! She’s a self-starter. At an early age she was spiriting herself off to every Australian talent agency listed and eventually one took a punt, casting her ethereal looks around the traps to see if there were any takers. There soon were and she was away. At only seventeen Hollywood came calling, casting her in HBO’s ‘In Treatment’, as a suicidal gymnast. Big screen appearances followed. Her breakout role came playing Alice in another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. It helped that the director was Tim Burton. Later came ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Stoker’, as well as ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’. Then the ingenue returned home for ‘Tracks’ and Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’. To come is ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’.

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Her ‘Madame Bovary’ is quite routine, some might say even plodding. Directed by Sophie Barthes, it is the first time that a woman has been at the helm for a film production of the novel, but it’s still somewhat of a let down all for that. This is a saga so repeated that to start at the end, for which the director has been criticised, hardly matters. We all know the journey, but there was little deviation from a rote telling here. A young woman is taken away from a convent by a hubby-to-be she hardly knows and after a village wedding, she settles down to life in a dank, bleak Normandy. The groom, the local doctor, is distant and leads a narrow existence. Her life soon becomes stultifyingly boring so she takes lovers and engages in the equivalent, back then, of on-line shopping (emporium catalogues), placing the couple deep in debt. In the end, she sees no way out but to take the ultimate step. The costuming of the film is really the only stunning feature but, dear me, why did the director have her actors, a mix of nationalities, speak so heavily in Americanese? To appeal to where the money is? It just made it all sound quite hokey.

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In the end, Madame B is just a plaything for her assistants in cuckolding the good doctor. She’s is naive putty in the hands of the rapacious merchant Monsieur Lheureux- an odious Rhys Ifans. His playing thereof is perhaps the film’s highlight. Mia does an okay job in the lead as a none-too-bright ninny. In truth, it doesn’t require great acting chops, although she is beautiful poured into her array of fancy outfits – and I did appreciate the way her beauty seemed to mature as the offering progressed.

Screening simultaneously to Madame Bovary is the latest version of ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, headed by a luminous Carey Mulligan. If one had to make a choice as to which production to spend a dollar on, get oneself to the latter would be my advice.

‘Gemma Bovery’ has now left our screens, but inevitably will soon be out on a smaller format. It is a much lighter take on the cautionary tale – and here rural France is sun-dappled and most appealing. It updates the whole business to current times, but still with a tragic outcome despite, for the most part, being played as a form of farce.

Gemma B (Gemma Arterton) breezes in from across the Channel, with hubby in tow, to set up residence next to Flaubert-loving retiree Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini). The lesser lights all are more than adequate in their roles, but as one would expect, it is a showcase for the sensuous Ms A.

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She’s one of my favourites, this ravishing thesp. Although being in the game for a while, her breakout performance seemingly is still yet to come, despite the fact being a Bond girl figures on her CV. The poor girl has even lost roles she would be superb in due to her perceived lack of star pulling-power. Nevertheless, she still has managed to pile up quite a resume on the large and small screen. Her debut was the romp ‘St Trinians’ in 2007. She was Strawberry Fields in ‘Quantum of Solace’, had lead roles in the underwhelming ‘Clash of the Titans’ and ‘Tamara Drew’, then she flounced around in the footlights for ‘Made in Dagenham’ – the musical. She’s played Hardy’s Tess on tele. Her bravest and most demanding role, to date, was in ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’. Here a kidnapping victim gets her ultimate revenge, but not before much gritty realism takes place. It caused some well-founded controversy on its release. I can but imagine the fortitude it took for her to take on such a taxing story.

But as Gemma Bovery, she is all charm and sparkling, come hither eyes. She happily has an affair behind her husband’s back under the watchful gaze of Joubert – a gaze that becomes obsessive, with him soon perceiving she is headed for deep do-do. And when this did come it was quite a shock, given the tone of the piece up until that point. Her retribution was not at all in the manner of the original. Do the explanations for this version of it stand up to close scrutiny? You be the judge on viewing this fine addition to the oeuvre. To me, despite this, it was a joy, coming to us in a manner we expect of the French. Another woman, this time Anne Fontaine, of ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ fame, was guiding the cast along the narrative and it is most entertaining.

I know I’ll be accused of being unpatriotic, but in this battle of the two Madame Bova(e)rys, the luscious Gemma wins, hands down.

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Trailer for ‘Madame Bovary’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=La-clCmfWGo

Trailer for Gemma Bovery = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6AHGtq_zqk

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