2015, R, 99 min. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Mel Raido, Isabelle Candelier, Niels Schneider, Elsa Zylberstein.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 17, 2015
Oh, how I rued my failed foreign-language skills in the opening moments of Gemma Bovery. Who wants to read subtitles when a French baker is rolling out such pliant, such pokeable, such heavenly looking dough? The baker in question, Martin Joubert (Luchini), also has some nonpastry thoughts to impart, via voiceover, about Gustave Flaubert’s essential novel Madame Bovary – the plot of which is borrowed, updated, and timidly upended for Gemma Bovery – but reading his subtitles is a real chore compared to watching that exquisite dough get kneaded.
Soon after, Martin steals the diary of his Normandy neighbor, UK expat Gemma Bovery (Arterton), the inheritor of a fraught name who wants nothing to do with its doomed legacy, even as her life begins to mirror that of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Gemma Bovery is based on Posy Simmonds’ former comic strip for The Guardian; she previously reconsidered a classic for comic effect with Tamara Drewe, a retooling of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd that was made into a movie in 2010, also starring Gemma Arterton. Both source characters certainly suffered all kinds of indignities – let’s not forget Bovary’s gruesome, black-bilious death – but still: One wishes these modernized spins might include less leering at their heroine’s rack.
Gemma Bovery privileges Martin’s besotted perspective, even as it pretends to present Gemma’s point of view, second-hand, via her diary excerpts in which she writes about old affairs, new romantic intrigues, and her life in a ramshackle, rat-infested house with her ineffectual husband, Charlie (Flemyng). The terrific Luchini (In the House) is the best you could hope for in a lopsided narrative – his twitchy, doleful performance as Martin is both self-aware and self-abasing, and his wife and son share enough knowing looks to signal that his obsession is a family embarrassment. Still, his control of the story is an irritating splinter in the heel of a movie that’s ostensibly about Gemma, but makes her an afterthought – another person’s infatuation – most especially in the film’s smug last minutes, during which we’re meant to measure the weight of Gemma’s life, with only the men weighing in.
The film ends with a blast of stern music – from a Red Army choral group, no less – that made me laugh out loud, then wonder if I’d underestimated director Anne Fontaine’s sense of humor. (Her last film, the MILF-swap drama Adore, certainly inspired guffaws.) But Gemma Bovery’s punchline is only funny if you think this is Martin’s movie, and Fontaine’s inconsistent POV jumbles that argument. Mostly, Martin calls the shots – literally, as when the camera lingers on Arterton’s body, mimicking his wandering eyes. But the camera also goes places Martin isn’t privy to. When Gemma swaps out a pair of wellies for stilettos en route to an assignation, neither established mode of spying (that of her diary or her stalker) justifies the audience’s lens on the moment. And it’s a moment to savor: Arterton slips a whole soundless aria of illicit desire into her shoe. Maybe next time she’ll get to star in a movie that’s actually about her, not just fashioned around her.