Anne Fontaine’s tragicomic Gemma Bovery is based on a 1999 graphic novel written by Posy Simmonds, with both works relying heavily on parallels to Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. The eponymous Gemma (Gemma Arterton) is an English expatriate who settles in a small village in Normandy with her husband, Charles (Jason Flemyng). Their middle-aged neighbour is Martin (Fabruce Luchini), an ex-Parisian baker and literature aficionado obsessed with the work of Flaubert and immediately captivated by the couple. Not only are the names of the new arrivals virtually the same as the lead characters of Madame Bovary, but their behaviour also seems to be inspired by Flaubert’s heroes.
With recent films like In the House, Bicycling with Molière and The Women on the 6th Floor, Fabrice Luchini has the market cornered on a particular brand of comically French middlebrow stuffiness, and Gemma Bovery relies on him conveying a similar sort of ennui, as well as some of the obsessive tendencies found in In the House. Early on, upon seeing Gemma’s arrival, Martin declares that the occasion has resulted in “the end of ten years of sexual tranquillity.”
Much like her literary counterpart whom Martin believes to be the real-life manifestation, Gemma finds herself in various adulterous entanglements, such as with a British former flame, and the youngest member of a local rich family. None involve Martin himself, as he observes everything from afar with both intrigue and concern that Gemma’s fate will be akin to the tragic one of Emma Bovary. This will occasionally result in some superficially witty comedy, like when Martin loudly freaks out when Gemma suggests using arsenic to eradicate the field mice running through her home, since — spoiler alert for a 159-year-old novel — that’s the substance Emma Bovary uses to take her own life.
Gemma Bovery’s “in media res” opening scene goes ahead and tells you upfront as to whether Gemma goes the way of Emma. There’s never any sense of Fontaine shaking up the Flaubert material, nor is there a sense that Gemma Bovery, as adapted here by director Anne Fontaine and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer, actually has much of a substantial point behind it (beyond mere cute conceit). It’s a film of scattered ideas that never really coalesce to make a meaty whole; all wink-wink literary nods and surface-level flirtations with various themes.
In a way, Gemma Bovery the film is a lot like Martin, in that it seems constructed to only satisfy those who are thrilled by the mere recognition of plot parallels. That, or those satisfied by (admittedly nice) cinematography that leers over Gemma Arterton’s face and curves (so the film’s also like Martin in that way, too). All credit to Arterton, though, who occasionally gets to hint at depths to her character that the filmmakers don’t seem all that interested in actually exploring. The shell of Gemma Bovery makes it seem like there might be something weighty within, but it’s too empty an affair.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.