First published in 1865, to say that Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary is a classic would be something of an understatement: Classic novels tend to be works that are very good at doing the types of things that tend to happen in novels. Madame Bovary is so good at doing those types of things that, to this day, many people argue that novels should only do the types of things that happen in Madame Bovary. To put it another way, Flaubert did not just inspire other people to obsess over place and character in narratives devoted to the lives of bored middle-class women, his success resulted in novel-writing becoming a more conservative art form than it had been at the time when he entered the field. Flaubert changed the novel forever and many would argue that his influence has long outlived its usefulness.
One of the characteristics that Flaubert inadvertently helped to cement into place was a dynamic according to which the inner life of a middle-class female protagonist would be completely transparent to a male writer. While male writers would often portray men as complex, conflicted and unknowable, their female protagonists would wind up living lives that not only made sense but fit within the confines of a novel. Thus, the leap of empathy that fuelled novels like Madame Bovary was also an act of submission to the male gaze. Originally published as a series of strips appearing in The Guardian, Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery was an attempt to address the maleness of Flaubert’s gaze by drawing the audience’s attention to the way that men see women, the way that men read novels, and the way that these two processes can often feed into each other. Anne Fontaine’s French adaptation of a British comic connects admirably with the source material’s literary criticism but struggles to understand the substantive issues surrounding the ways in which straight men look at women.
Despite the title, Gemma Bovery is a film about Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini). Joubert is a middle-class Frenchman who spent decades working for a Parisian publishing house before taking over the family business and returning to Normandy in order to work as a baker. Despite living the middle-class dream of moving to the country and working with his hands, Joubert is bored with his son, bored with his wife, and bored with the selection of artisanal breads that now define him as an individual.
As Joubert memorably puts it, ten years of sexual tranquillity are then shattered by the sudden arrival of a British couple: Handsomely middle-aged Charlie (Jason Flemyng) and impossibly gorgeous Gemma (Gemma Arterton). Despite their initial struggles with the language, the couple soon fold themselves into village life and Gemma’s near-obsession with local produce flatters Joubert’s professional pride to the point where he becomes completely obsessed. Rather than flirting with the younger woman, Joubert’s becomes obsessed with the idea that Gemma Bovery is somehow living the life of Emma Bovary, the heroin of Flaubert’s novel.
Despite this being a film about the distance between the male gaze and reality, Anne Fontaine seems incapable of drawing our attention to the artificiality of Joubert’s perspective. At first, Fontaine’s monotonous take on the character works quite nicely as the film sticks closely to Joubert’s point of view meaning that every time we see Gemma she is backlit, bending over, or doing something incredibly sensuous like kneading bread or lifting up her hair to reveal the shape of her neck. The film purposefully shuts us off from Gemma’s inner life and so we are forced to see her through the eyes of a middle-aged man who is desperate to see her as a combination of tragic heroin and sex object. The problem is that while the second half of the film is all about unpicking and undermining Joubert’s beliefs about Gemma, Fontaine refuses to modify her style.
For example, about halfway through the film, a neighbour happens to comment that Gemma has gained weight. Spiteful and venomous, the remark causes Gemma to stay indoors and spend countless hours working out. However, rather than using these sequences to draw the audience’s attention to the fact that Gemma is a very insecure person who puts a hell of a lot of work into maintaining a sexy public persona, Fontaine uses these scenes as an opportunity to fill the screen with images of a sweaty Gemma Arterton bending over in tight-fitting workout clothes. Even worse, Fontaine’s obsession with making Gemma Arterton look like a melancholic beauty means that she frequently undermines the moments in which the plot tries to reveal the modern young woman who lies buried beneath the weight of Joubert’s middle-aged fantasies.
This Soda Pictures DVD release comes with a surprising number of extras and, in one of the interviews, Arterton unwittingly reveals one of the problems with Fontaine’s approach to the project namely that while Fontaine is intelligent enough to recognise the interplay between fiction and reality in how men construct impressions about the women they meet, Fontaine sees no problems in this process of objectification. Indeed, while Fontaine’s comments on Luchini are all about his ability to create an impression of emotional depth, her comments on Arterton stress the younger woman’s spontaneous and guileless sensuality. In other words, Fontaine struggles to portray the tension between fantasy and reality because she is completely at home with the idea of a young woman being defined by how she appears to heterosexual men.
Despite this unfortunate tension between the film’s theme and its style, Gemma Bovery is beautifully acted and highly adept at capturing a sense of lingering erotic tension. Perhaps not as funny as it might otherwise have been, Pascal Bonnitzer and Anne Fontaine’s script nonetheless does an excellent job of communicating complex themes without ever allowing the subtext to overshadow the humanity of the characters. Missed opportunities aside, Gemma Bovery provides exactly what we have come to expect from this type of French film: Excellent acting, complex characters, adult themes, and beautiful cinematography.