The ‘Laura Ashley School of Filmmaking’ is in its element amongst the French farmyard aesthetic of Gemma Bovery, a modern take on Gustav Flaubert’s 19th century tale of bored housewife Madam Bovary.
Gemma Bovery (played by Gemma Arterton) is a new resident to the Normandy village where our narrator Martin Joubert (played by Fabrice Luchini) runs a bakery. Moving in across from Martin, Gemma and her husband grab Martin’s attention once it becomes apparent that their marriage is much alike Martins favourite Flaubert novel.
Introducing comedy to what is known to be a tragic tale proves at times to be an odd, if not distasteful, mix for the film, with Martin’s obsession coming across unnecessary and ultimately intrusive for his new neighbours. There are some good quips at Martin’s son, seeking perhaps to get a few laughs at Gen Y’s expense, but these moments seem outside the storyline and really only remind the audience that the character of Martin is also a kindly family man, and not just a nosy neighbour.
The intrigue playing out across the street is really what drives the film, with Arterton playing an elegant Gemma, a softer take on Flaubert’s thrill-seeking Madam Bovary. The modern Bovery, while intoxicating to be around (and that is all lovely), appears to be searching for something akin to true passion, though is just as puzzled by her lack of interest in what’s on offer as any female throughout history. There is her well-meaning but unstimulating husband, the young student in town from Paris, and a former lover who scorned her and visits announcing his new single status. These are all romantic templates that could easily be filled to something potentially satisfying, yet Gemma finds herself acting out the expat’s wife character; a foodie, stimulated by baked bread.
Sadly, such themes are not much pursued in the film, in favour of Martin’s objective that Gemma is his favourite literary character come to life. He observes her running off with the young university student Julien (played by the up and coming Niels Schneider, better known from Xavier Dolan’s films), yet these moments are comedic, as the audience laughs at Martin’s obsession, which distracts from Gemma’s improved mood after feeling out of place in her new environment. The audience is never sure whether Martin has found himself actually in love with Gemma, even Martin’s wife regards his entrancement with sarcasm rather than what should be a healthy amount of concern. As a result, the scenes without Martin narrating come across choppy, as though the two protagonists are apologsing for intruding on the other’s screen time.
Saying that however, is to misinterpret what is meant to be a light-hearted film. This is for those who like Nora Ephron films, but hate the noise and youth of New York City. Young Julien’s chateau, the fresh bread, the French farmland all contributing to the heritage film aesthetic, and what English speakers fantasise of French living; the film follows Martin through this fantasy, sadly bypassing getting to know Gemma Bovery at all.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10