Arts Review, Movies

Gemma Bovery

Gemma Bovery featured image

Anne Fontaine, director and co-script w/Pascal Bonitzer based on graphic novel by Posy Simmonds
Starring: Gemma Arterton (Gemma Bovery), Fabrice Luchini (Martin Joubert), Jason Flemyng (Charlie Bovery), Isabelle Candelier (Valerie Joubert), Niels Schneider (Hervé de Bressigny), Mel Raido (Patrick), Elsa Zylberstein (Wizzy), Pip Torrens (Rankin), Kacey Mottet Klein (Julien Joubert), Edith Scob (Madame de Bressigny)


Typecasting is a two-edge sword for actors: it gives them an identity but robs them of the chance to play more challenging roles. One wonders if that’s the case with Gemma Arterton, the British actress who played an updated version of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd feisty heroine Bathsheba in a Stephen Frears film called Tamara Drewe four years ago. Now Arterton is back as another 19th century literary figure, Madame Bovary, in a contemporary version set in modern Normandy. It can hardly be a coincidence that both Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery are satirical inventions of the remarkable Posy Simmonds, a cartoonist who is beloved in England for her cartoon creations that often appear in The Guardian. For better or worse, Arterton has become Simmonds’ alter ego.

Gemma Arterton brings more than her first name to Anne Fontaine’s modern take on Flaubert’s notorious Emma Bovary. As she did with Tamara/Bathsheba, Arterton has brought a straightforward, very modern approach to Madame Bovery that is simultaneously funny and endearing. Just as in Tamara Drewe, her character, Gemma Bovery, has three men in love with her, a fact that hardly makes her happy or even satisfied. Understandably, she’s in flux, sometimes acting impulsively and other times, with calculation. She’s at her best when she knows what she’s doing and at her worst, when she falls in love. (Not much has changed since the 19th century). Above all, she’s an icon—and Arterton plays that as exactly what she doesn’t want to be.

Certainly, Gemma Bovery is the object of what academics like to call the male gaze, especially when it comes to Martin Joubert, the local baker, who is obsessed with her, partially because of her beauty but mainly through her resemblance to Flaubert’s character. It’s Joubert, marvelously played by Fabrice Luchini, who narrates Fontaine’s film and is kept befuddled by Gemma Bovery. We’re never sure where Joubert’s love for both Gemma and Emma will lead us—and that’s a good thing for the film.

The story, cheekily created by Simmonds, has the Bovery couple, Gemma and Charlie, arrive in Normandy from London, where life was becoming too complicated for them. But their sojourn in rural France hardly turns out to be simple. Charlie and Gemma fall out of sync with each other despite making friends with a wealthy couple, Wizzy and Rankin, as well as the local bakers, Martin and Valerie Joubert. Much like Emma in Flaubert, Gemma has an illicit affair with a member of the local gentry and when that relationship sours, becomes involved with an old lover, who unexpectedly arrives in Normandy.

As Madame Bovery’s tale unfolds, Martin Joubert is there to observe and occasionally to make matters worse. Much as Simmonds did in Tamara Drewe, Gemma is fated to run a course somewhat similar to the one in Flaubert’s novel. There’s a wonderfully bracing scene in which Arterton—at her best—assures Martin Joubert that she’s a modern person, not a relic from the 19th century. And, indeed, her destiny is somewhat different from Emma—but it’s still tragic.

Tamara Drewe was wickedly funny; Stephen Frears clearly understood Simmonds’ point-of-view. Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is darker: the story isn’t just played for satire. In both, Gemma Arterton makes the most out of playing a modern young woman fighting against 19th century archetypes.

Is Gemma Bovery worth seeing? It’s fascinating and confusing and charming and not totally successful. But you’ll enjoy it—especially if you love Flaubert.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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