Literary references and odd coincidences abound in "Gemma Bovery," an updated twist on Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel, "Madame Bovary." Both are set in the picturesque countryside of Normandy, and both concern a woman who begins an extramarital affair with a wealthy scoundrel. The novel, of course, is one of the towering achievements in literature, and this trivial movie has no idea what to do with it.
Or perhaps it has too many ideas, which is the same thing. Directed by Anne Fontaine and based based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, "Gemma Bovery" introduces us to Martin Joubert (the great Fabrice Luchini), a married older man who runs a bakery. Into his neighborhood arrive Gemma Bovery (a summery Gemma Arterton) and her husband, Charles (a grouchy Jason Flemyng). Although they're British, their names so resemble Flaubert's characters that Martin worries they will re-enact the tragic novel. When Gemma considers buying arsenic to solve her mouse problem, Martin panics: After all, that's how Emma Bovary met her end.
There are major problems with this movie's overall setup. Martin is smitten with Gemma but never becomes her lover; that would be Herve (Niels Schneider), a gorgeous trust-fund kid. As a result, Martin's only real purpose is to narrate the story and draw us a Venn diagram of Gemma and Emma, who partly but never fully overlap. What point Martin, or the movie, wants to make is never clear.
More disappointing is how this movie seems as quaintly sexist as a 1960s comedy. As a person, Gemma's only notable quality is a hothouse sexual allure that trails her like perfume. She's an oh-so-innocent tease: Her breasts have a habit of nearly brushing Martin's face, causing him to sweat and gulp like Benny Hill. If Flaubert's intention was to elevate the humanity of the overlooked housewife, this movie reduces her to a sex kitten.
"Gemma Bovery" can never decide whether it's a light comedy, a melodrama or a work of erotica, and in the end it's none of the above. If nothing else, though, it might make you want to reread Flaubert.