The trouble with classic works of literature that illuminate universal truths is that they also have an unerring habit of persuading us that life somehow fits neatly into the narrative parameters writers use to tell said stories.
The chaotic nature of life, however, continually resists the set patterns of fiction, but that doesn’t prevent us from repeatedly going back to the stories we love in our quest to understand why reality doesn’t always square up to the things we imagine for ourselves.
In some respects, this is what Gemma Bovery is about – or, rather, it explores in gently comic ways the dangers inherent in trying to make life imitate art too closely. Riffing on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary by way of Posy Simmonds’s titular graphic novel, the film casts Gemma Arterton in the title role as a woman whose arrival in rural Normandy becomes a point of obsession for her new neighbour, Martin (Fabrice Luchini).
Middle-aged, married and father to a teenage son who cares more about videogames than books, Martin’s love of tragic literature – and Flaubert in particular (he’s Normandy’s most famous literary son) – allows him to live in his head a little as a way of escaping – or at least trying to cope with – the drudgery of his own reluctantly artisanal life as the local baker.
When he first meets Gemma he’s instantly smitten and no wonder: newly arrived with her furniture-restorer husband (Jason Flemyng), she has a luminous presence, a smattering of French, and an array of clingy sundresses that will soon get him hot under the collar.
Lest he come across as a foolish old man, though, he zeroes in on her name and convinces himself that his interest in her is purely protective: he doesn’t want Gemma Bovery to suffer the same fate as Flaubert’s doomed Emma Bovary. Stalking her from afar – and sometimes not so afar – he worries things won’t end well for her, particularly as she embarks on an affair with a handsome young law student (Niels Schneider).
Martin witnesses the first rush of this affair, clocking their attraction across the square from his bakery and imagining himself telepathically directing their actions. But he also has more direct contact, exploiting her interest in rustic French life, gallantly coming to her aid when a bee flies into her dress, and inviting her behind the counter of his bakery for a euphemism-heavy tour of his work space – a mildly ludicrous scene featuring bread being kneaded in almost comically erotic fashion.
Director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) films her lead here in much the same way Stephen Frears did in Arterton’s previous Simmonds adaptation, Tamara Drewe; there’s certainly a slyness to her sex appeal that the camera picks up on.
Whether Arterton is parading around the English countryside in denim cut-offs (as she did in Tamara Drewe) or slinking through rural Normandy in lingerie and a raincoat (as she does at one point here), she’s complicit with her directors, fully cognizant of her respective characters’ status as fantasy objects whose actual lives are more complicated (and less melodramatic) than the men who fixate upon them can possibly imagine.
That’s an interesting dynamic to explore and Fontaine – opting for a less smugly satirical take on Simmonds’s work than Frears – draws us into the fantasy world before chipping away at it to reveal something more melancholic. That’s not to say the results are entirely successful.
The gorgeously hazy visuals and shabbily chic production design make it hard to tell if Fontaine is always embracing stereotypes to subvert them, or because audiences for French cinema expect and enjoy them.
When Gemma complains about life in France being harder than the rural idyll we imagine she’s been promised, for instance, she comes across as spoiled and bratty, so beautifully quaint is her and her husband’s new home. And yet such a reaction could also be predicated on the fact that Fontaine is presenting this world mostly through Martin’s skewed view.
As such, it’s not necessarily fair to judge Gemma’s reality based on his interpretation of it. Indeed, when Martin is with his family or getting into arguments at dinner parties, Fontaine subtly alters the tone, hinting at the disappointments in his life that have made him susceptible to his literature-fuelled delusions.
Still, it does seem a little ironic that as Martin persists with his Flaubert fixation – even as Gemma tries to reject the role he’s ascribed her in his imagination – the film itself should get away with bending the plot of Madame Bovary to fit it by exploiting our preconceptions of French cinema. When the fates of beautiful young women and grey-haired old men are forever intertwined, plausibility is never more than a Gallic shrug away.
Showing locally at Alnwick Playhouse at 7.30pm on Thursday, October 22