Martin Joubert is profoundly bored. A humble baker in a small Normandy town, he has little to occupy his days. His wife doesn’t like him much and his teenage son has disappeared into hoodies and headphones. Each day, Martin’s work is done by dawn. All he has is his books.
So when an exotic English couple (from London!) moves into the house across the street, Martin gets interested. That interest becomes obsession when he realizes that his new neighbors are, in some cosmic crossover, living out the plot of his favorite work of literature—Madame Bovary, the scandalous 19th-century erotic novel by Gustave Flaubert.
That’s the set-up for Gemma Bovery, the modest French comedy from director Anne Fontaine. The film isn’t an adaptation of the book; rather, it’s an adaptation of the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which is, in turn, a kind of homage, update and pastiche rolled into one.
British actress Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) plays Gemma Bovery, who appears to Martin (Fabrice Luchini) to be some impossible art-to-life reincarnation of the novel’s heroine, Emma Bovary. Like her fictional counterpart, Gemma finds married life dull, and her wandering eye leads to erotic rendezvous with a local university student and, later, a former lover from the big city.
Martin, who by this point has entered full-on stalker mode, follows Gemma around and begins to worry that she’s destined to meet the same fate as Flaubert’s character. He knows how this story ends. The comedy—I guess you’d call it that—comes from Martin’s attempts to derail fate by steering Gemma away from poor decisions and, significantly, arsenic.
The trouble is that Gemma Bovery, as a comedy, isn’t particularly comedic. The movie’s only really funny scenes involve Martin’s odd relationship with his dog, Gus, who serves as the baker’s friend and conspirator. Martin confides in Gus, then grows annoyed when the dog seems incapable of grasping subtle matters of the human heart. There’s also a wry sex scene where the lovers’ passionate flailing results in the destruction of an antique Cupid statuette. (“It survived three revolutions and two world wars without a scratch!”)
That’s about it, funny-wise. Arterton does what she can with the role, but as a character, Gemma Bovery just isn’t all that interesting or likable. She is, however, impossibly gorgeous, and the camera spends long moments lingering over her body in lovely summer dresses. It’s pleasant, but it works against the story. In the book, the character of Emma Bovary isn’t an irresistible beauty. She’s a bored housewife with terminal romantic delusions. Fontaine seems uninterested in following this thread for either comedy or drama.
In the end, the realization dawns that Gemma Bovery isn’t actually about anything other than its own life-imitates-art premise. Things get very meta toward the end, when Gemma Arterton, as Gemma Bovery, reads the original book starring Emma Bovary, and concludes: “Nothing happens, really.” It’s a sentiment that applies to the film, too. Gemma Bovery is a pleasant enough diversion for recovering English majors, but it’s more of a clever conceit than an actual movie.