In ‘Gemma Bovery’, a beautiful young woman (Gemma Arterton) bearing a familiar name escapes the trials of life in London to live in picturesque Normandy with a sweet but dull husband (Jason Flemyng). Her arrival excites the fiction-obsessed Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), her neighbour, as Bovery’s life begins to follow the same pattern as her literary doppleganger. But the real focus of the film is not the question of whether Gemma’s life truly follows that of Flaubert’s heroine, but rather offers a fascinating character sketch of a man who cannot see past the fiction he wants to see in a beautiful young woman.
Flaubert’s novel, published in 1856, was almost immediately attacked and prosecuted for obscenity. Its frank depiction of female sexuality, adultery, and what is now termed “modern realist narration” propelled the novel into contemporary notoriety and has influenced almost every major novelist since. In the book, Emma Bovary is a beautiful young doctor’s wife stifled by the limitations of her time. She turns to the accumulation of material possessions and romantic affairs with young men in order to feel greater than she is – to mimic the stories she reads. However, she lives beyond her means which leads to her tragic end.
‘Gemma Bovery’, on the other hand, blurs that story – keeping some details and discarding others. Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer’s script, based on Posy Simmond’s serialized graphic novel of the same name, does a masterful job of connecting Gemma and Emma just far enough that we see the similarities but are left with the understanding that they are clearly different people. Gemma escapes a dull London life and begins an affair with a young man while her husband is away. However, Gemma is not a fan of the classics and her motivations for her affair are left ambiguous. It is the neighbour Joubert who bears the love of literature and the desire for a more romantic life. In fact, the majority of Madam Emma Bovary’s distinguishing traits can be found in Joubert – a fact that is illustrated in small moments throughout the film.
Like the novel, ‘Gemma Bovery’ is not really about Gemma at all. Flaubert’s novel begins and ends with Charles Bovary, just as the film begins and ends with Martin Joubert. The film is about the men in Gemma’s life and their inability to see the person beneath the beautiful shell. Fontaine’s direction openly ogles Gemma’s body, her receding hemlines, and the exquisite moans of pleasure she makes when smelling bread – all done in long lingering shots tinted with golden light. Gemma Arterton gives an excellent performance as an object of desire with a hidden inner life. But it is the voyeuristic neighbour Joubert (Luchini) that captures the audience’s attention. The final scene, in which Joubert welcomes a new neighbour, brings the full circle, fully exposing Joubert’s desire for the romantic ideal of beautiful woman’s tragic downfall – fiction brought to life.
Gemma Bovery is a masterful, multi-layered narrative that engages on multiple levels.
Gemma Bovery is a masterful, multi-layered narrative that engages on multiple levels. Visually, the saturated gold and blue light is stunning and captures the mood of each scene. The actors blend seamlessly into their roles, with Fabrice Luchini offering a standout performance as Joubert. But it is the intellectual weight that makes the film interesting. The characters, while well drawn, are not particulalry compelling, and the film’s focus on Joubert lightens the drama of Gemma’s life – meaning that there is very little dramatic tension. Ultimately, the film is an inrtiguing intellectual treat – but one without an emotional core.