Gemma Bovery (2014)

Gemma Bovery

As light and summery as one of her floaty summer frocks, Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery brings to life Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of Flaubert’s classic of provincial French boredom and adultery.

Sentimental Education

by Alexa Dalby

Gemma Bovery

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Gemma Arterton is luminous as her namesake. She’s the delightful wife in an English couple who relocate to a run-down house in a small town in lovely countryside in Normandy, where she charms every man she encounters with her beauty and naturalness. Bored during her furniture restorer husband’s (Jason Flemyng) absences, she begins an affair with Hervé (Niels Schneider), the law student son of the local aristocrats who live in the adjacent chateau.

All this is uncomfortably observed by the their neighbour Joubert (a subtly funny performance by Fabrice Luchini – from Ozon’s In The House), who narrates the film with the help of Gemma’s diary. Joubert is a failed middle-aged publisher who has returned from Paris to his home town with his wife and teenage son to start a new life as a baker. He bakes all the wonderful types of bread that English expats in France swoon over. And inspired by Gemma’s enthusiasm for his wares, he unwittingly gives her a highly sensual lesson in kneading dough.

Mild-mannered, literary Joubert becomes comically attracted and obsessed. Even though Madame Bovary is a novel of which she is totally ignorant, the coincidence of her name and the fact that her husband is also called Charles convinces Joubert that life is imitating art and that Gemma Bovery will suffer the same fate as Emma Bovary – a doomed affair and suicide – unless his determined vigilance can prevent it.

The tone is wry and gently humorous. The language is mainly French even from the English characters, with Arterton especially fluent – subtitled but with occasional English. It pokes fun at English expats in France in the person of Rankin (Pip Torrens) and his French wife Wizzy (Elsa Sylberstein), who is more English than the English, and at the amused French view of them. It is sympathetic towards Joubert’s frustrated yearning and credits him with good intentions. And in the end, ironically, it’s the valuable statue of a Sèvres Cupid, broken during one of Herve and Gemma’s trysts, that leads to the discovery of their affair.

Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), Gemma Bovery is slight but also undemandingly pleasant. Even the tragedy that inevitably overcomes Gemma is somehow more comic than dramatic. When it ends, it’s almost as if the whole film has led up to the punchline that’s delivered when Joubert meets the new family who move into the Boverys’ house.

Gemma Bovery is released on 21st August 2015 in the UK

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