Mark Reviews Movies

Gemma Bovery


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Anne Fontaine

Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Elsa Zylberstein, Mel Raido, Pip Torrens, Kacey Mottet Klein, Edith Scob

MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality/nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 5/29/15 (limited); 8/7/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015

Since he first read the novel at the age of 16, Martin (Fabrice Luchini) has loved Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. We can assume that he also loves Emma Bovary, the novel's eponymous character, or at least that he loves the idea of her. When Charlie (Jason Flemyng) and Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) move into the house across the street from his in a rural town in Normandy (where Flaubert wrote the book), the names—spelling be damned—are close enough for Martin.

Gemma is beautiful and free-spirited and bored with life, so he assumes she must be just like the fictional character whose name is similar to hers. It's little wonder, then, that Martin becomes furious when Gemma suggests she's going to take care of the field mice in her house by buying some arsenic-based poison.

There's the potential for a knowing, intelligent comedy in Gemma Bovery, and it's apparent that the movie is playing the material for laughs, given its bouncy soundtrack, its affably delusional protagonist, and its final, labored punch line. There's also something to admire in the attempt of making a smart piece of literary criticism within the confines of a comedy of errors of sorts. The movie, co-written and directed by Anne Fontaine (based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel), knows—and trusts that we know—the literary source of Martin's superstition well enough that it can take some shortcuts in explaining the joke. If one doesn't know why the arsenic thing is amusing, the movie isn't going to explain it to you immediately. That's fine, but it feels as if there are some shortcuts within the movie's own narrative.

That makes the comedy broad when it seems to be trying for something far more specific. We're supposed to be amused by the way the elder Martin's eyes repeatedly linger over the curves of Gemma's body (In this particular instance, the phrase "supposed to" is key on a couple of levels). There's a more noteworthy context to his infatuation with the younger woman—something that speaks to our attachment to fictional creations and a certain kind of chivalric fantasy.

The movie doesn't clarify what Martin's character means on a critical level until it's far too late for one of these characters. He's lustful for Gemma yet morally conservative when it comes to her actions, and since his last name is Joubert and the movie already has us thinking about names that sound alike, we can at least take Martin to be a stand-in for a certain author. The movie doesn't think too highly of one of them, so you can probably finish the rest of that thought.

Martin once lived in Paris but moved to the small town to run his father's bakery and seek a peaceful life. Gemma and Charlie have moved there from London to seek happiness, too—his idea. The mere sight of Gemma, according to his narration, awakens Martin's sexual appetites. His wife (Isabelle Candelier) notices but doesn't think too much of her silly husband's childish, literature-inspired obsession.

Events occur along similar lines to Flaubert's novel. Gemma meets and is attracted to a young law student named Hervé (Niels Schneider), whom Martin likens to Rodolphe, one of Madame Bovary's lovers, from the book. He even imagines that he has orchestrated the eventual lovers' initial meeting, like the director of a movie (or the author of a story), filling in their conversation before they speak. Like the arsenic, Martin is convinced that the affair will lead to Gemma's death, so he tries to find a way to stop it before, in his mind, Gemma's inevitable downfall.

There are differences with the book, too, which Martin doesn't seem to notice. Charlie isn't as naïve about his literary counterpart, so when he suspects something is amiss, he isn't afraid to address it. Madame Bovery is far more emotionally stable than Madame Bovary—by a long shot. Her extramarital dalliance is a matter of the heart, not of attempting to gain in social stature or of filling some unfillable hole in her psyche. We get the notion that she would be fine if the affair were to end. Martin cannot understand that.

All of these things, though, are about events—the way they somewhat match or diverge from the novel. The identities of the characters, as well as the movie's own identity, are inseparable from the novel. Neither the characters nor the story exist on their own merits. This, again, would be fine, if not for the fact that the movie keeps us wondering what the point to the exercise is.

The movie does get to its point eventually, although it arrives at the climax. It is, admittedly, an intriguing notion that turns the conclusion of the book into something approaching a feminist perspective on and against the novel. The critique is slightly undermined by the way it relies on a tragedy involving characters we only vaguely know and how the contrivances needed to get there are almost perversely comical. Gemma Bovery has something worthwhile to say, but its impact is hampered by the movie's indirect route to arrive there.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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