“Gemma Bovery” Is a Delightful, If Slight, Romp through Flaubert’s Tragedy

Gemma Bovery

Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014)

Are you familiar with a British graphic novel entitled Gemma Bovery? No? Neither was I. When I saw the name of this new film by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), I automatically assumed it was an allusion to Gustave Flaubert’s great 19th-century novel of adultery and consequence, Emma Bovary (which it is, for sure). It’s more than that, however, as it’s an adaptation of an adaptation (of a sort). At its center is an English couple living in Normandy – last name Bovery, wife’s first name Gemma – who, in the eyes of local baker Martin Joubert, come to resemble the ill-fated couple of homonymous appellation. Does life actually imitate art, or is it Martin’s obstinate belief in a metaphysical connection between art and life that is the root cause of all that follows? These are the questions posed by Fontaine’s well-made, entertaining and fascinating, if ultimately slight, movie.

The wonderful Fabrice Luchini (Beaumarchais the Scoundrel) plays the middle-aged Martin, who narrates the film in world-weary tones that become a little more animated after the Boverys move in next door. Charles – played by Jason Flemyng (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) – is a man not far from Martin’s own age, married to the much younger Gemma – who, in a nice art-imitating-life twist, is played by Gemma Arterton (Runner Runner). He restores furniture; she is a painter. They’re very much in love, until they cease to be, slowly. As Martin – a married man, himself, and a father, though hardly a happy one – inserts himself into their story through a will to interfere motivated by his own boredom (and Gemma’s luscious curves), we can’t help wonder how Gemma and Charles would have fared without his intrusive meddling. Luchini is a master at showing the warring emotions on Martin’s face as he hesitates, then goes one step too far.

Shot in beautiful golden hues, highlighting Gemma’s sexual allure, the film tackles head-on the (older) male tendency to fixate on (younger) women as objects of desire that can make the world right, if only they would give in. Throughout the movie, Gemma is largely denied personal agency, almost passively giving in to her preordained status as a tragic heroine. But it’s important to always keep in mind that this is Martin Joubert’s story. He acts as our guide, and it is through his point of view that we access the characters. We will never truly know Gemma, only Martin’s version of her.

It’s a very clever movie, and despite the unhappy conclusion (not a plot spoiler, if you have any idea how Madame Bovary ends), it is also very funny, filled with delightfully contentious conversations between French and English people about the nature and meaning of life. One of my favorite characters is Wizzy, the French wife of a British ex-pat, played by the great Elsa Zylberstein (I’ve Loved You So Long), who spends most of the film advising the younger Gemma on what to eat and how to exercise (“I’ve got the ass of a 20-year-old stripper,” she coos). The absurdity of Martin’s obsession with the Bovary-Bovery connection is also played mostly for laughs. So what’s not to like? Nothing, really. If I just liked it, rather than loved it, it’s only because by the end of the film I had grown a little weary of its artifice. If art imitates life, then I was Charles, rather than Martin, tired of the game and ready to move on.

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