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Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Gemma Bovery (2014)

* * *

Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Gemma Arterton

If you look hard enough, I'm sure you could come up with a more unique, more specific cinematic niche than the one that Gemma Arterton seems to be developing as the star of modern day takes on literary classics via adaptations of graphic novels by Posy Simmonds, but I can't think of one. Granted, that currently only makes for two films (Tamara Drewe is the other one), but still. Gemma Bovery finds Arterton living out the broad strokes of the story of Emma Bovary, much to the consternation of her well-meaning neighbor who wants to stop her from making the same mistakes as her literary counterpart. As told by Anne Fontaine, it makes for a film that's a little bit drama and a little bit comedy, one that can skip from being sensual to being farcical without missing a beat.

The story is seen through the eyes of Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a former academic who has left Paris behind in order to settle with his wife and son in a little village in Normandy and become a baker. When new neighbors move into the cottage across the road, Martin is delighted to learn that they're named Charlie (Jason Flemyng) and Gemma (Arterton) Bovery. Though seemingly happy, Gemma and Charlie have a somewhat troubled relationship which has brought them to Normandy from their native Britain in order to try for a fresh start, but things only become more strained as Gemma finds their new residence lacking. Not only does the roof leak whenever it rains, but the cottage also has mice, which Gemma wants to get rid of with poison, only to be told by Martin that under no circumstances should she do that. His official reason is that doing so may accidentally end up harming Gemma's dog, but his real reason is that he doesn't want Gemma Bovery to end up meeting the same fate as Emma Bovary. The more he gets to know Gemma, the more superstitious he becomes about the possibility of Gemma following in the fictional woman's footsteps, and he quietly begins intervening in an attempt to correct the course of Gemma's life, which of course only ends up pushing her in exactly the direction he doesn't want her to go in.

First she meets Herve (Niels Schneider), a law student from a wealthy local family whom Martin immediately pegs as the equivalent of the wealthy man who seduces and then callously discards Emma Bovary. Martin tries to steer Gemma away from Herve and is beside himself when Gemma ends up in Herve's bed regardless. Herve, however, is not the worldly playboy that Martin assumes he is; he's just a handsome and somewhat charming young man who, it turns out, is deathly afraid of his mother, and ultimately lacking in the courage needed to pursue Gemma even though he may want to. Martin is able to manipulate things in order to bring an end to the affair, however, this merely opens the door for Gemma to be reunited with an ex-lover, Patrick (Mel Raido), who turns out to be a friend of a woman who lives in the village. While Martin laments the bad choices that Gemma is making, and his inability to save her from herself, his wife (Isabelle Candelier) becomes increasingly annoyed by his obvious crush on the neighbor and his obsession with the story of Madame Bovary.

Gemma Bovery is a film that is as much about the romantic trials and tribulations of its eponymous character as it is about the midlife crisis of its non-eponymous protagonist, who is instantly infatuated with the lovely Gemma, but never receives a second look from her. He's the story's fool, both in the Shakespearean sense that he exists on the periphery of the narrative and knows something that the other characters don't, and in the sense that he makes himself look like a bit of a dope, mooning after his much younger neighbor, following her around like a puppy, and obsessing over her love life. Because of the skill of Luchini's performance, and the carefully crafted tone maintained by Fontaine, Martin's fascination with Gemma seems silly and a little bit sad rather than outright creepy, and we feel sorry for him more than anything - at least until the end, when he gets tricked into starting a new cycle of romantic literary fantasy.

In the title role, Arterton, who is somehow not a huge star, delivers an exquisite performance as a woman who is restless in her domestic life and looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. Because this isn't her story so much as it's her story as seen through the eyes of Martin, and very much filtered through his desire to make her and her situation conform to the Madame Bovary story, she's located at a certain remove from the audience. Arterton's performance draws the audience in as much as possible, giving hints of the character's inner life and suggesting the ways that the men around her are projecting ideas of who she is on to her that fit into their own needs - Martin wants to play the hero; Herve wants to find some alternative to the life that's already been laid out before him courtesy of law school and his fiancee; Patrick wants to erase the unhappiness of his recent divorce from the woman that he left Gemma for by, essentially, hitting reset and getting back with Gemma; Charlie wants Gemma to be the easier, happy second chance after the disaster of his first marriage. None of them know Gemma, they just know what they want for themselves through her, and in the end all they can do is collectively stand around, each assuring the others that her fate isn't anyone's fault. That might seem like adding insult to injury, but consider this: they all lose her, but she gets to escape all of them, so whose tragedy is it, really?

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