Gemma Bovery, film review: Take pleasure in a delicately sketched affair

(15) Anne Fontaine, 99 mins. Starring: Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng
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Infidelity is generally portrayed in very melodramatic fashion in movies. Husbands try to kill their wives' lovers. Affairs end in suicides and broken families. Parents are torn away from their children. The sense of guilt and treachery tends to be all pervasive. It is therefore a relief to encounter a drama as sly and playful as Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery.

Fontaine's feature is based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which was itself inspired by Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It stands as a companion piece of sorts to Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe (2010), also adapted from a Simmonds graphic novel and also starring Gemma Arterton. This is glossy, Saturday-supplement filmmaking, both celebrating and satirising the behaviour of its determinedly middle-class protagonists. It's a movie in which the characters all eat camembert, drink fine wines and make small talk about interior decoration.

The filmmakers take great pleasure in highlighting the cultural differences between the British and the French in every area from gastronomy to lovemaking. There are tragic elements here. (Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Flaubert's novel will know that it ends badly.) Even in its darkest moments, though, the film never loses its sense of comic irony. The most seismic events here always have a whiff of absurdity. During a heavy-breathing sex scene, someone will damage a piece of priceless china. When lovers are trying to take themselves seriously, there will be a pet dog creating mischief in the background. Much of the comedy here come from the characters' infinite capacity to misunderstand each other.

The English couple (Arterton and Jason Flemyng) building a new life in rural France have set up home next door to the literature-loving French baker Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini.) He is obsessed with Flaubert's famous novel and sees Gemma as a modern-day equivalent to its heroine. When he gives her the novel to read, her response is instructive. "Nothing happens but, at the same time, it is interesting," she says – a verdict that could equally well be applied to the film.


The subtext here is that everyone is bored rigid. Life in the small French town may seem idyllic, but it has its trials. The shutters in the English couple's house rattle. They have an infestation of mice (an device to introduce arsenic in to the plot). There are only so many dinner parties and country walks that the characters can endure. The locals are desperate for something to happen. Martin, the big city intellectual reinventing himself as an artisan baker, is the most bored of all. He is a voyeur and a manipulator who quickly becomes obsessed by Gemma. Rather than try to seduce the beautiful Englishwoman himself, he seeks to engineer a situation in which she, like Madame Bovary, might start an affair.

Luchini is one of the great French character actors of his era. He gives a brilliant comic performance here as Martin, the nosy, obsessive neighbour. Whenever Gemma walks into his bakery, he stares at her with the sense of utterly lecherous longing that someone with a sweet tooth might show toward a very delectable looking cream cake. At the same time, he has a creepy quality. In a different kind of movie, you could easily imagine him as the small-town serial killer. He is always plotting and stirring; writing anonymous letters, reading other people's journals, and generally trying to influence their behaviour. It is through him that Gemma encounters Hervé De Bressigny, the handsome young aristocrat studying for his exams.

"I remember feeling a strange kind of jubilation," he reflects on the idea that Gemma and Hervé might start an affair. "I could see them naked in each other's arms. "Madame Bovary crossed paths with the country squire Rodolphe just as Gemma crossed paths with Hervé."

Arterton is likewise impressive in a role that requires her to speak mainly in French and to be ethereal and earthy at the same time. She is both the embodiment of glamour – the object of Martin's rapt desire – and a frustrated middle-class English woman abroad, one with a very chequered love life. Unlike her free-spirited Tamara Drewe, Arterton's Gemma Bovery leads a claustrophobic existence, with all the menfolk in her life trying to constrain her in one way or another. "When I'm with you, I feel like an accessory – like your watch or your bloody Montblanc pen," she rails at her former boyfriend Patrick.

Director Fontaine doesn't moralise about the behaviour of the characters. She simply observes them. Hervé may look like a Greek god but he is "dull, conventional", more dedicated to passing his law exams than to Gemma's wellbeing, and terrified of upsetting his formidable mother. As Gemma's husband, Flemyng is a loyal but stolid figure, slow to realise that he is being cuckolded. Even Luchini's Martin turns out not to be as smart as he thinks he is. There is something pathetic about his attempts to pretend that he and his neighbours are characters in a 19th-century literary novel.

Then again, Flaubert's original novel wasn't about kings and queens. It was determinedly provincial: the story of a country doctor's wife. Fontaine's film can be seen as a faithful updating of that novel. Banality comes with the territory. This is a movie in which a bee sting is considered a major event and in which a love bite spotted on the heroine's neck seems like the mark of Cain. It is the everyday detail in Fontaine's evocation of the English couple's life in France that makes the film appealing. Gemma Bovery pays attention to everything from the plumbing to what its heroine buys at the local market. Its wry, tongue-in-cheek approach may skirt close to superficiality but this is also a film with a barbed comic edge.