Gemma Bovery (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality/nudity and language
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Mel Raido, Elsa Zylberstein, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenplay: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine (based on the novel by Posy Simmonds)
Review published June 17, 2015
Set in the Normandy region of France, Fabrice Luchini (In the House, Paris) plays a married publisher-turned-baker named Martin Joubert, who is amused to find that his new neighbors from England are named Charlie (Flemyng, Stonehearst Asylum) and Gemma Bovery (Arterton, The Voices), very reminiscent of the characters from Gustave Flaubert's classic novel, "Madame Bovary", Charles and Emma Bovary, and in the same locale as where the events of the book are set, no less. Martin soon becomes smitten by his young and alluring neighbor, but becomes increasingly anguished when she begins to get bored being stuck at home, and soon engages in romantic dalliances with certain men visiting the village while hubby is away on business, not only because those men aren't him, but because he feels that he knows exactly how things will play out, given that this is very similar to what Flaubert wrote in the 19th Century.
Gemma Bovery is adapted from a serial comic first published in the newspaper, "The Guardian", by British cartoonist Posy Simmonds, the same woman who adapted Thomas Hardy's novel, "Far from the Madding Crowd" into a comic strip called "Tamara Drewe". Interestingly, both film adaptations of Simmonds' work would star Gemma Arterton as the lead character, and given that "Gemma Bovery" had been originally published in 1999, eight years before Arterton first made a movie, her casting is just one of the many uncanny coincidences that has seemed to work in Simmonds favor, as she has grown to be perfect for the role she hadn't known she was making for her namesake.
Directed by Anne Fontaine (Adore, Coco Before Chanel), Gemma Bovery glides on a whimsical air through most of the film, which relies on many coincidences, much like its casting, to contrast the life of Gemma Bovery and Flaubert's Emma Bovary, to the chagrin of Martin, whose knowledge of the literary protagonist's tragic fate leads him to try to take steps with Gemma's activities to make sure she doesn't also meet an equally sad demise. She gets some very good, subtle performances by a very talented cast, and Arterton herself adds great nuance to a role that could have remained just a simple object-of-desire plot catalyst. There is a difficult scene late in the film, which I won't spoil, that could have seemed artificial if performed by someone of lesser talent, and she makes it feel very real.
You don't necessarily need to be familiar with the Flaubert book in order to follow Gemma Bovary, but I think it does help to appreciate its many allusions. For instance, Martin's alarmist attitude upon discovering that the Bovery's have arsenic around the place in order to curb their field mice problem would make him seem like he's irrational unless you're aware that he's fully aware of how Emma Bovary would use such poison to end her own personal pain and depression in the book. He thinks Gemma is like a ship heading for a fated iceberg and he's the only one that can see it in her path, so he aims to do something about it when he can when he sees a similar pattern unfolding before his eyes. And yet, his own jealousy also steers her away from the potential happiness of escape with another man because, deep down, Martin doesn't want her to go, which steers the ship full steam ahead, back into the course of certain calamity.
For such a light, whimsical story, and in such a scenic setting as Normandy, it's hard not to be lulled into Gemma Bovery's escapist spell for 90 minutes of relatively easygoing charm, enough to find it a pleasant, innocuous diversion. It's not really funny enough to be classified a comedy, though it does often play like one, and not really deep enough to be a resonant romance. It's more of a story that tinkers playfully with certain old-fashioned conventions, and along those lines, it does manage to maintain an objective amusement. The ending of the story is a bit problematic, as it goes from mild sitcom antics to some sort of mystery twist that feels forced and unnecessary, but Fontaine manages to avoid choking after overreaching a bit, bouncing the lighthearted tone back just enough to patch things up before the end credit roll.
©2015 Vince Leo