When an English couple moves next to middle-aged French baker Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), he becomes as taken with the wife, Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), as she does with his baked goods, “finishing 10 years of sexual tranquility” for him. Given her surname and his passion for Flaubert, Martin starts seeing, and projecting, Madame Bovary’s storyline onto Gemma’s own narrative of short-lived marital bliss in the French countryside. And when this narrative doesn’t completely mirror the novel’s own, Martin begins to perversely interfere with it, trying to escape the banality of his own existence. This involves narrating Gemma’s inner thoughts out loud as he watches her from afar, sending her a fake breakup letter from her lover, Hervé (Niels Schneider), and generally stalking her.
Gemma, a sexually aware ingénue alienated by an inability to master the French language and the idiosyncrasies of her new surroundings, is easy prey for Martin’s literary hunger. She’s swayed and affected by the smallest things, such as being told that she has a muffin top by a skinny neighbor obsessed with the fitness equipment that “everyone in L.A.” has, which triggers her to immediately begin jogging. The pleasures and the humor of the film lie precisely in the incidents which don’t coincide with the novel: The crux of Martin’s character is his fixation with Gemma—his spoiled insistence that she act out the tragedies of the Flaubert character—rather than his storytelling skills. Director Anne Fontaine portrays this stretch of idyllic French life as a site of loss, where the supposed serenity of everyday life hides a history of defeats: unhappy marriages, unrealized literary dreams, average intellects, and tacky interior decoration plans that will never see the light of day. As such, Gemma Bovery dabbles in the French romantic-comedy tradition and simultaneously spoofs it, committing to neither.
In Gemma Bovery, Fontaine is sometimes too constricted by the film’s premise of literary (mis)identification to indulge in something more authentic. In this sense, the film develops not unlike a fable, or a folkloric tale, where events must develop quickly and in a linear order so that the moral of the story can emerge ever so neatly. It’s in the few moments when Fontaine indulges in the purely stylistic that the film breathes. For instance, when Gemma steps into Hervé’s family chateau wearing a trench coat (the kind Catherine Deneuve wore in her Louis Vuitton print ads) for no reason, only to shed it and reveal all she has underneath is black lingerie. Or in scenes of uneventful dialogue around a dining table, a specialty of French cinema, where presumably quotidian questions like “Do you vote labor?” are just the furtive tip of a thorough probing of one’s soul. By the time Gemma is gone and new neighbors move in, presumably Russians, we smell the overtly immaculate circularity of the plot—will a Tolstoyan intrigue now unfold?—not like an insight, but a redundancy.