TORONTO — It’s Bill Murray Day here at the Toronto International Film Festival (which means that there are free public screenings of “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Groundhog Day,” and that the man himself is going to be interviewed onstage tonight; surely I’ll have some quotable tidbits tomorrow) and I thought I’d celebrate by seeing a couple of films inspired by Flaubert. (Hey, Bill is all about doing your own thing, right?)
“Gemma Bovery” and “Madame Bovary,” both directed by female French filmmakers (Anne Fontaine and Sophie Barthes, respectively), are based on the 1856 Gustave Flaubert novel about a small-town doctor’s wife who turns to affairs and overspending to slake her boredom. Barthes’ vision is a traditional one (though a fair bit of plot is trimmed, to make the film a tidy two hours), with Mia Wasikowska in the title role, and it looks gorgeous — wet green fields, candlelit interiors, ravishing gowns that seem to plaintively illustrate how desperately Emma wants to be surrounded by beauty. Though Wasikowska’s beginning to make a specialty of nineteenth-century literary films (i.e. “Jane Eyre”), her Emma here is no Bronte heroine; she’s petulant, flat-voiced, and intriguingly guarded. Gorgeous period films are, alas, out of fashion in these post-Merchant Ivory days, and nobody here seems particularly excited about this film, but I found it artful and moving, despite a nagging feeling that perhaps too much of Emma was left on the page. (Note a fun bit of upstairs-downstairs casting: Laura Carmichael, a.k.a. Lady Edith of “Downton Abbey,” plays Emma’s maid.)
Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery” (which, in what seemed like an obvious misstep, screened first in the double feature) is something else entirely; a contemporary comedy of manners. A middle-aged small-town baker (Fabrice Luchini, his wide-eyed expression perpetually balanced somewhere between yearning and horror) living in Flaubert country (northern France, near Rouen) is intrigued by an English couple who moves in across the street — who just happen to be named Gemma and Charles Bovery (Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng). Out spins a “Madame Bovary”-ish tale, as the baker watches in astonishment — and, except for a dip towards darkness near the end, it’s great fun; complete with pretty scenery and some very erotic bread kneading.
Elsewhere: buzz is not good for David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” (screened yesterday; nobody seems to have liked it), but “The Imitation Game,” with Benedict Cumberbatch, arrives here from Toronto with lots of goodwill from Telluride. The musical “The Last Five Years,” with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan got picked up for North American distribution today (despite not having screened here yet; I’ll see it tomorrow) by Radius-TWC. And another new TIFF twist this year is that the volunteers who lead the long press lines into the theater now have paddle-shaped numbered signs to carry, making them look like cruise-ship guides or “Dancing with the Stars” judges. I’m off later to go see “This Is Where I Leave You,” with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman (based on a terrific novel by Jonathan Tropper), so will close here. Happy Bill Murray Day to all!
Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary in “Madame Bovary” (Photo courtesy of TIFF).