ALISTAIR Harkness reviews the week’s new cinema releases
Gemma Bovery (15)
There’s certainly a slyness to Gemma Arterton’s sex appeal that the camera picks up on”
Directed by: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Fabrice Luchini, Niels Schneider Star rating: ***
The trouble with classic works of literature that illuminate universal truths is that they also have an unerring habit of persuading us that life somehow fits neatly into the narrative parameters writers use to tell said stories. The chaotic nature of life, however, continually resists the set patterns of fiction, but that doesn’t prevent us from repeatedly going back to the stories we love in our quest to understand why reality doesn’t always square up to the things we imagine for ourselves.
In some respects, this is what Gemma Bovery is about – or, rather, it explores in gently comic ways the dangers inherent in trying to make life imitate art too closely. Riffing on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary by way of Posy Simmonds’s titular graphic novel, the film casts Gemma Arterton in the title role as a woman whose arrival in rural Normandy becomes a point of obsession for her new neighbour, Martin (Fabrice Luchini). Middle-aged, married and father to a teenage son who cares more about videogames than books, Martin’s love of tragic literature – and Flaubert in particular (he’s Normandy’s most famous literary son) – allows him to live in his head a little as a way of escaping – or at least trying to cope with – the drudgery of his own reluctantly artisanal life as the local baker.
When he first meets Gemma he’s instantly smitten and no wonder: newly arrived with her furniture-restorer husband (Jason Flemyng), she has a luminous presence, a smattering of French, and an array of clingy sundresses that will soon get him hot under the collar. Lest he come across as a foolish old man, though, he zeroes in on her name and convinces himself that his interest in her is purely protective: he doesn’t want Gemma Bovery to suffer the same fate as Flaubert’s doomed Emma Bovary. Stalking her from afar – and sometimes not so afar – he worries things won’t end well for her, particularly as she embarks on an affair with a handsome young law student (Niels Schneider). Martin witnesses the first rush of this affair, clocking their attraction across the square from his bakery and imagining himself telepathically directing their actions. But he also has more direct contact, exploiting her interest in rustic French life, gallantly coming to her aid when a bee flies into her dress, and inviting her behind the counter of his bakery for a euphemism-heavy tour of his work space – a mildly ludicrous scene featuring bread being kneaded in almost comically erotic fashion.
Director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) films her lead here in much the same way Stephen Frears did in Arterton’s previous Simmonds adaptation, Tamara Drewe; there’s certainly a slyness to her sex appeal that the camera picks up on. Whether Arterton is parading around the English countryside in denim cut-offs (as she did in Tamara Drewe) or slinking through rural Normandy in lingerie and a raincoat (as she does at one point here), she’s complicit with her directors, fully cognizant of her respective characters’ status as fantasy objects whose actual lives are more complicated (and less melodramatic) than the men who fixate upon them can possibly imagine.
That’s an interesting dynamic to explore and Fontaine – opting for a less smugly satirical take on Simmonds’s work than Frears – draws us into the fantasy world before chipping away at it to reveal something more melancholic. That’s not to say the results are entirely successful. The gorgeously hazy visuals and shabbily chic production design make it hard to tell if Fontaine is always embracing stereotypes to subvert them, or because audiences for French cinema expect and enjoy them. When Gemma complains about life in France being harder than the rural idyll we imagine she’s been promised, for instance, she comes across as spoiled and bratty, so beautifully quaint is her and her husband’s new home. And yet such a reaction could also be predicated on the fact that Fontaine is presenting this world mostly through Martin’s skewed view. As such, it’s not necessarily fair to judge Gemma’s reality based on his interpretation of it. Indeed, when Martin is with his family or getting into arguments at dinner parties, Fontaine subtly alters the tone, hinting at the disappointments in his life that have made him susceptible to his literature-fuelled delusions.
Still, it does seem a little ironic that as Martin persists with his Flaubert fixation – even as Gemma tries to reject the role he’s ascribed her in his imagination – the film itself should get away with bending the plot of Madame Bovary to fit it by exploiting our preconceptions of French cinema. When the fates of beautiful young women and grey-haired old men are forever intertwined, plausibility is never more than a Gallic shrug away.
The Wolfpack (15)
Directed by: Crystal Moselle
Star rating: ***
Movies – particularly violent movies – are often blithely demonised for the reality-warping effect they can have on impressionable and inexperienced minds. But as this documentary shows, they can also offer a valuable lifeline to the outside world when no other source is available. Initially that’s the most striking aspect of Crystal Moselle’s documentary: as she hangs out with six teenage brothers (two of whom are pictured below) whose contact with the outside word has been severely curtailed by their domineering father, the film shows how the movies their father brought into their run-down New York apartment have emboldened his children to stand up to him and begin exploring the outside world they’d been almost entirely forbidden from experiencing when they were younger. The film also shows how recreating their favourite movies for themselves – diligently transcribing the scripts for the likes of Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight, building props, making costumes – became a form of self-actualisation for the boys, one that also seems to have rubbed off on their mother, who we see gradually drawing strength from the example her children have set, having herself been subjected to restrictions from her husband that were, she confesses, worse than those imposed on her children. If the film is frustratingly oblique when it comes to following through on some of these issues and probing a little deeper, it does, in the end, offer a remarkable testament to that most enduring of all movie clichés: the power of the human spirit.
Good People (15)
Directed by: Henrik Ruben Genz
Starring: James Franco, Kate Hudson, Tom Wilkinson
Star rating: **
Call it Shallow Grave Robbers. Pilfering its premise from Danny Boyle’s debut film, this Brit-set thriller finds James Franco and Kate Hudson pairing up to play a London-based American couple who invite a whole heap of trouble into their lives when they decide to keep a bag full of cash they find in their house after their lodger dies of a drug overdose. Mired in debt and trying to start a family, their insufferable belief in their inherent goodness has fostered in them a sense of entitlement to the cash that a better film would have seen fit to interrogate. No such luck here. When rival drug dealers and a tenacious veteran cop (Tom Wilkinson) come sniffing around, director Henrik Ruben Genz piles on lots of tedious and increasingly silly plot turns involving shoot-outs in London and domestic fights involving nail-guns – all en route to a lame, cop-out ending.
Directed by: Ron Scalpello
Starring: Danny Huston, Matthew Goode, Joe Cole
Star rating: **
Following recent efforts like Black Sea and Pioneer, this latest genre film to feature desperate men trapped in a highly pressurised vessel far beneath the sea doesn’t have much more to offer than the overwrought symbolism one might expect from a movie with such an on-the-nose title. Danny Huston and Matthew Goode head a small cast as members of a four-man pipeline repair crew who get stranded at the bottom of the Somali Basin when a storm destroys their support ship. Genre rules dictate that in between trying to save themselves physically they must also attempt to save themselves spiritually by wrestling their own demons, most of which revolve around father-son issues and existential questions relating to the fragility of life. Director Ron Scalpello is clearly working on a lower budget than he’d probably have liked, but even so, he’s unable to make a virtue of his limitations – the diving bell’s claustrophobic setting never really translates into claustrophobic tension on screen.