“Gemma Bovery” is an unusual film, not to be confused with the current Sophie Barthes adaptation of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” starring Mia Wasikowska and Paul Giammati. (Note the different spellings “Bovery” and “Bovary.”) That film hasn’t played here yet nor to my knowledge has it been booked yet either.
“Gemma Bovery” is from a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds that began as a newspaper comic strip. It’s about an English couple that moves across the channel to the Normandy countryside to get away from it all.
They move next door to a French family, also engaged in fleeing to the country to get away from the urban world. They own a bakery in the country, specializing in heavenly breads of all sorts. The husband and father is named Martin, a former literature professor.
And that, it ought to go without saying, is bad news when the English people moving in next door are named Gemma and Charles Bovery. Even if the baker could somehow handle his countryside suddenly rewritten by the ghost of Gustave Flaubert, how is he going to handle a next-door neighbor as alluring as Gemma Bovery?
Well, he can’t. So a man who is already obsessed with Flaubert’s novel (his dog is named Gus), is now solidly obsessed with the astonishing beauty next door. Convinced that the life of Gemma and her husband Charles will begin to mimic the life of Flaubert’s Emma and Charles, he begins attending to all the comings and goings of HIS Madame Bovery.
And, sure enough, there is an affair with Gemma and a wealthy young local law student. And then, later, an irresistible erotic attraction between Emma and an old fling who once mistreated her. He happens to be a friend of another of her neighbors and no force on earth can entirely quell his old attraction to her, especially now that he sees what country life has done for her. She, in turn, can’t keep her old yearnings quiet either. Sparks are sparks, you know? The heart wants what it wants. So do other organs.
Gemma is so in love with Martin’s breads that his bakery is one of her regular stops. Even when she’s not buying, she just walks in and starts smelling them. She is, as fate would have it (and Posy Simmonds’ sly and very cunning graphic novel) a very bored and sensual and beautiful woman living in the country.
Meanwhile, her relentless eavesdropping neighbor officially transforms himself into a wretched, meddling busybody all to keep her from a life appointment with arsenic foretold in his novel by Flaubert.
All of this is presented in a devilishly sly way by director Anne Fontaine (who co-wrote the movie and is also an actress.) It is presented, more or less straight, as a French countryside libido tale.
Gemma Arterton plays Gemma Bovery and from the first time Martin (and the audience) see her, the camera conspicuously loves her, from the soft down on the nape of her neck to the way she walks in her summer shifts.
Fontaine here is doing a very gentle – but very pointed – parody of the objectified way men direct such tales of erotic obsession. The physical presence of her lead actress Arterton must obsess audiences for the film to work both as drama and parody and so it does.
When, then, the ending comes, we are fully acquainted with the fact that one of the film’s chief subjects has been “the male gaze” of feminist art theory. The melodramatic absurdism of the ending is directly related to some of the more unfortunate ways the male brain is hard-wired.
The irony of the film, of course, is that director Fontaine’s loving parody of a French erotic obsession film depends enormously on the total viability of her stars.
And that she has. They are the making of the film, especially Arterton who has been around a while but has never before been sensational. Playing her obsessed baker/neighbor Martin is Fabrice Luchini, an enormously disciplined comic actor who has some of the perennially startled look of the great Derek Jacobi.
This is a very small movie with a lot on its mind but not so much that it doesn’t remain small and ever-so-sly about how it gets at some very large subjects.