A Literary Kind of Love

Gemma Bovery
(France, 99 min.)
Dir. Anne Fontaine, Writ. Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider, Isabelle Candelier, Edith Scob, Elsa Zlyberstein.
Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini © Jérôme Prébois / Albertine Productions
Ah, books. Isn’t nice to relish a classic work of literature and see the delicately crafted words fuse art and life? A great book lives on the mind of the reader, and the legacy of a masterwork couldn’t be more evident than in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery as bookworm baker Martin Joubert (played by In the House’s Fabrice Luchini) watches art imitate life in his quaint country town in Normandy. Joubert, endlessly enjoying flights of the imagination to escape the boredom of his humdrum life, finds himself in luck when some new neighbours move in across the street and the wife (Gemma Arterton) goes by the name of Gemma Bovery. Normandy, as Joubert explains, is where Flaubert wrote his literary landmark Madame Bovary, so the potential that a real life Emma Bovary lives nearby lands Joubert in the midst of a juicy page-turner.

Joubert’s boredom fuels Gemma’s distractions and vice versa as the droll Frenchman works his way into Gemma’s life by walking with her in the countryside, teaching her about bread and wine, and helping her with her French. This curious young Londoner—so seemingly foreign in provincial France—is just the right spice that Joubert needs for all his ethereal musings. He makes Gemma in his own sexual fantasy as he watches her alleviate her boredom with the help of a strapping young Frenchman (Niels Schneider), and his French lessons with Gemma carry a marked tone of innuendo, although Gemma is completely oblivious to his allusions and awkward stares. A saucy breadmaking session, for example, is so sexually charged that Gemma and Joubert might as well be making peach pie with Kate Winslet (or even discussing Madame Bovary in a book club with Kate Winslet) and Gemma stands in a long line of bored housewives longing for an escape.

It’s hard to say whether Gemma is as tired in Normandy as Emma is, but Joubert imagines it so as he narrates his droll musings for the audience. Fontaine drenches Gemma Bovery in literary asides just as much as she delights in the natural beauty of the Norman landscape: one doesn’t need to have read Flaubert to appreciate the play on adaptation and the layers of intertextuality that run throughout the film. (The film itself is an adaptation of Posy Simmonds that adapts Flaubert.) Gemma Bovery offers a literary kind of love as Joubert sees parallels between Gemma and Emma, and tries to play Flaubert by injecting himself into the complicated love triangles with his buttery croissants and French cultural capital. He even prides himself as a great artist in one especially fun scene in which he play directs Gemma’s infidelity, but his own knack for tragedy triggers Gemma Bovery’s tragic end. Dommage!

Joubert is a delightfully masterful voyeur and Luchini's turn demands to be seen by fans of 2013’s In the House, which also sees the French actor carry a playfully literate tale about the perverse thrill of storytelling. He’s fun, spirited, just a bit pervy with Joubert’s dirty-old-man vibe and a bit of a hipster with his obsessions over Flaubert and fromage. Luchini’s presence and the many asides of Gemma Bovery inevitably soften the film with its likeness to the deliciously superior In the House, but whereas François Ozon’s film has a darkly satirical edge to its portrait of banal suburban living, Fontaine finds a bright breeziness for the air of tragedy that flows throughout Gemma Bovery. Gemma Bovery, however, sometimes feels as lightweight as the delectable loaves of white bread coming out of Joubert’s oven, but it’s fleetingly scrumptious as a dose of bookish carbs. (Nom, nom, nom!)

The film’s opening frame and the ghost of Emma Bovary, however, heighten the viewer’s awareness that Joubert’s ruminations don’t end with a tale of happily-ever-after. Ever loaf of bread, after all, has its crusts.

The tears that stain Gemma’s diary, which Joubert reads on the sly throughout the film, show that Gemma’s story is peppered with Emma Bovary-ish malaise despite the cheerful air she puts on for show. Arterton is bright and fetching as Gemma, for her performance consistently balances the edge of contentment and melancholy on which Madame Bovery teeters. She finds joy in earthly sensual things, like sex and a good French loaf, but other she seems just as bored at social gatherings as she does looking at the rain. Arterton never fully gives Gemma in to Madame Bovary’s literary ghost and instead lets the desolate housewife be Joubert’s fiction while Gemma, the real Gemma, is a decidedly contemporary woman struggling to reconcile her balance of work, love, commitment, and happiness. It’s a nice reading on the character in a film filled with layers of re-readings.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Gemma Bovery screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Jan. 11.
It opens at The Mayfair on Feb 6.