Gemma Bovery is a Gemma Arterton-starring adaptation of a Posy Simmonds-authored comic of the same name, which is a modernisation of Gustave Flaubert’s literary classic Madame Bovary. This is not to be confused with the Mia Wasikowska-starring adaptation of the Flaubert book, whose Coming Soon standee can be spotted in at least one of the Australian cinemas showing this Bovery. It is also not to be confused with the other Gemma Arterton-starring adaptation of a Posy Simmonds-authored comic modernisation of classic literature, Tamara Drewe. That 2010 film is an update of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd… which has its own film adaptation by Thomas Vinterberg coming out this year. These ten seconds’ worth of mental unspooling will be all that’s necessary for some cineastes to sweep Gemma Bovery under the rug and re-watch Mad Max instead, but they would be missing out on a dark, clever comedy that shouldn’t be overlooked.
If it’s not the initial confusion that makes people relent, it might be the first ten minutes of the film, which are hardly bad but play right into the worst fears of a thin story hinging on pretty European panoramas and middle-aged male despondency.1 Fabrice Luchini plays our resident sadsack, Martin, who is lectured by a snippy wife (Isabelle Candelier) as he moulds dough in his countryside bakery. He laments to the camera about the staidness of his new life in the country, effectively complaining that he’s traded one sense of normalcy for another. He’d be jettisoned from our sympathy immediately if not for Christophe Beaucarne’s gorgeous cinematography, capturing not just the Norman countryside but the bakery itself, with dough being kneaded and raised in beautiful soft lighting. It’s a nice world he lives in, and he just has to be reminded of its splendour. On his trudge home, he comes across his British expatriate neighbour Charles (Jason Flemyng) burning remnants of an ended relationship. For reasons that become clear later, he nicks a book from the bonfire and retreats to the study of his country villa. It’s the diary of Gemma (Arterton), Charles’ former partner, and through the recounts she has left behind, the film delves into flashbacks that portray a woman in crisis and a man, Martin, in delusion.
In these previous months, Gemma moves into a rustic mansion with Charles, within a stone’s throw from Martin’s family. She picks up the language and customs with gusto, but she starts to chafe from unexpected problems within weeks. The country mansion she lives in is barely holding together, and it begins to symbolise problems that Martin would love to think he relates to well, but are fraught with deeper longings and past regrets he can’t and won’t understand. It’s here where director and co-writer Anne Fontaine reveals thematic similarities to Flaubert’s story of a woman’s compromised personhood. Perilously, those aren’t lost on the temperamentally sallow Martin either. In the course of relating his and his dinner companions’ quiet lives as a kind of romantic caper, with bawdy scenes like when he is forced to physically suck bee-sting venom out of Gemma’s lower back, he carries something even more damaging within him. It’s more akin to author disease, in that the poor saps around him are his to shepherd away from the danger written for them by fate. The writing is smart enough that he is never made to save the cat, but always made so that we understand where he’s coming from, and doubly so for Gemma, who is put through a wringer that remains depressingly familiar through all of the modernising of a 159 year-old tale.
Director Anne Fontaine has plenty to work with. She could hardly have a better lead than Arterton, who is both luminous and relatable, nor a better antagonist-in-disguise with Luchini, who is a snivelling kind of hapless and fun to pity. Of the suitors that flit in and out of Gemma’s doings, young Niels Schneider stands out, looking like he walked straight out of a period drama, and acts as spoiled and slavish as that sounds. Fontaine has a great touch with all of their awkward and funny exchanges, especially one market scene where Martin dubs their unheard conversation while on a smoke break, expertly edited by Annette Dutertre, it furthers Fontaine’s idea that Fucchini is “a distant French version of Woody Allen”.
Her touch only goes so far – Flemyng and Chandelier aren’t given much to work with as Gemma and Martin’s partners, though the best joke of the film is given to Martin’s son (Kacey Mottet Klein) near the end – but she wins out by focusing squarely on the conflicts and misunderstandings, almost whiting out the French scenery in favour of their sullied emotional landscapes. When that drama is resolved, we’ve borne witness to an impressive change in tone, going from a chummy, naughty-in-a-safe-way comedy to a biting dress-down of over-literate men and the sense of entitlement intrinsic but invisible to them. The surprise of Gemma Bovery is how invisible its reversal is, directed so effectively as to draw us further in than any of its idyllic settings.