“A beautiful meditation on love”

by Josh Stillman

Gemma Bovery, on the surface, explores the phenomenon in which life imitates art. The titular Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and her husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng) bear names and identities that are nearly identical to those of the couple at the heart of Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary. When they relocate to a small town in the French countryside, Martin (Fabrice Luchini), a local baker and former academic, as well as the film’s narrator, remarks immediately on the literary parallel. And, to his surprise and dismay, Gemma’s life continues to mirror the events endured by her nominal analogue. It’s all very clever and coincidental, but that’s not really the point. This is in truth a story about voyeurism, authorship, and agency.

Director Anne Fontaine’s previous feature, 2013’s Adore, was an overbearing and overly serious attempt to portray erotic intensity; it resulted in a stuffy two hours of ogling, groping, and forlorn stares. In the new film, much of the material is thematically similar – Fontaine is fascinated by the simmering combination of fear, shame, and arousal that attends illicit sexual desire – but Gemma Bovery feels comparatively mercurial. It retains the former’s charged atmosphere of repressed lust, but its presentation is far more nuanced and, perhaps more importantly, it knows that romantic longing doesn’t preclude humor and levity.

Gemma Bovery
Directed by
Anne Fontaine
Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng
Release Date
29 May 2015
Josh’s Grade: A-

This isn’t to say that Gemma Bovery is a comedy, per se, but it maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, even when the action is at its most knowingly melodramatic. What it is, however, is a beautiful meditation on love in many of its unspoken or forbidden forms. When Martin, a married man on the tail end of middle age, first lays eyes on Gemma – lithe, buxom, radiant in her youth – he admits in voiceover, “That was the end of 10 years of sexual contentment.” And indeed, it is in the eyes of her characters that Fontaine makes her most potent gestures. For all its literary leanings, Gemma Bovery is a profoundly visual affair, with notable emphasis placed on the subtle expressions, the sidelong looks, the glances over the shoulder, that convey in an instant what would require pages of text (fitting, then, that it was adapted from a 1999 graphic novel by Posy Simmonds) . Luchini in particular is adept at wordlessly conveying a wide range of overlapping emotions; the camera tends to linger on his face as he wrestles with earnestness, lust, and disbelief, sometimes all at once.

And, because the mind has a tendency to distort what it covets, many of these looks are not to be trusted. When seen through Martin’s eyes Gemma takes on an almost angelic quality, appearing to float through the world in soft focus, when the truth is much more quotidian. Indeed, many of the men in her life don’t see her as much as they see an idea of her, imposing their own narratives on her reality. Martin, ever the observer, goes so far as to narrate from afar an interaction with a handsome stranger; still others places themselves at the center of her story, insisting that they in fact are the authors of her fate. But Gemma, whom Arterton plays as intelligent and independent, as well as frustrated and capricious as a schoolgirl, bristles at the idea that she is not an autonomous figure in her own life. She dismisses a domineering lover by telling him, “I hate how I feel when I’m with you. I feel like an accessory”; when Martin confronts her about his Madame Bovary theory, she replies, “I’m not her. I’m free.”

Much like Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi feminist parable, Gemma Bovery hinges on notions of female agency beneath an omnipresent male gaze. Men, in both cases, try to write themselves into a woman’s story, or try to write her story for her. And if the films are to be believed, there is only one escape from this authorial hijacking: death. In Ex Machina, after Ava (Alicia Vikander) murders her captor and escapes from his compound, she flashes a tiny smirk of satisfaction at having wrought her own deliverance; so does Gemma betray a glimmer of triumph as, beset by the men for whom she is a possession or a prize, she deliberately bites off a piece of bread that is too large to swallow. The first is radical and the second cynical, but they both reflect the necessary violence of liberation from male dominion. In the aftermath of Gemma’s death, numerous men rush to blame themselves, but the truth is that the choice was hers alone, the ultimate expression of her autonomy in a situation beyond her control. Her final act was to wrest the pen from their hands, from anyone’s hands but her own, and write the last lines herself.