‘Gemma Bovery’ is a Different Take on a Literary Classic

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Gemma Bovery isn’t a straight adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The tragic events of the classic novel are never far from the events of Anne Fontaine’s cinematic adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ 1999 graphic novel. The result is a film that gently weaves between tragedy and comedy, romance and obsession; that is compelling for its modest ambition, even if the film isn’t going to set the world of fire.

Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) is a baker in a small town in Normandy living with his wife Valérie (Isabelle Candelier) and underachieving teenage son Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein). One day while walking his dog, Martin meets his new neighbors Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charlie Bovery (Jason Flemyng) who have just moved into town from London. Immediately, Martin is stricken by the similarities of their names to the characters of Flaubert’s novel. As Martin begins to get to know the couple, the more he becomes infatuated with Gemma. He sees within her the same quiet dissatisfaction of Emma Bovary. However, to a certain extent, he is right as Gemma begins having an affair with Hervé (Niels Schneider), a young aristocratic law student. Watching the events unfold from a distance, Martin fears that the events he is witnessing are dangerously close to the novel which is burned into his consciousness. Fearing that Gemma will be like Emma and end her own life, he tries to intervene but his attempts to help have a ripple effect on everyone involved.

Director Anne Fontaine, who co-wrote the script with Pascal Bonitzer, finds a clever way in letting the events of the film unfold. It opens by informing us that something has happened in the relationship between Charlie and Gemma. The story then unfolds as a flashback while Martin reads Gemma’s diary which he rescued from immolation from Charlie. The opening clues us in to events that will happen later, but it works to elevate the intrigue of wondering what and how occurred in this undefined event.

The film shies away from moralizing the actions of Gemma. If there’s a moral to be found here, it’s that a quiet dissatisfaction should be vocalized before it leads to deleterious decisions with the potential to cause greater damage. By extension, the film moralizes the infatuation of Martin, as if he unwittingly wills the events to mirror that of Madame Bovary. Things don’t take a turn until Martin leaves his role as passive observer and tries to intervene in matters that were not for him to intervene.

Much of the reason that Gemma Bovery works as well as it does is the subtle work of its two leads. Fabrice Luchini carries with him most of the comedic elements of the film with his big-eyed lost gaze. He’s adeptly able to convey Martin’s growing infatuation with Gemma without uttering a single a word. As the radiant figure that captures Martin’s attention, Gemma Arterton carries the film’s emotional elements. Arterton plays Gemma as sensual and glowing in one moment, the next a quiet, introspective woman unsure of her place in the world.

Gemma Bovery is a film that doesn’t try to do too much. Like the soft camera movements, Anne Fontaine handles the material with a light touch. This is a film that never gets bogged down by prolonged and strained over-emotionality, but rather a film that is a fitting homage to literary classic while providing its own unique take on a well-established tale. Of all the comic book adaptations that will hit the screen this year, Gemma Bovery is likely the only one inspired by the 19th Century French literature. Your move, Marvel.

Gemma Bovery opens in New York and Los Angeles May 29th and expands to other cities in the weeks following. For an update list of theaters, go here.

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