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Setting the World On Fire: The Girl With All the Gifts, the Film



Pandora, whose name means either “all-gifted” or “all-giving,” was ostensibly the first human female created by the Greek gods. Each of the gods helps create Pandora by giving her specific gifts. According to Hesiod’s myth, 

Pandora opened a jar (pithos), in modern accounts sometimes mistranslated as “Pandora’s box,” releasing all the evils of humanity — although the particular evils, aside from plagues and diseases, are not specified in detail by writer Hesiod — leaving only elpis [the personification and spirit of Hope] inside once she had closed it again.

The mistranslation of the Greek pithos (“jar”) to the Latin pyxis (“box”) is usually attributed to Erasmus when he translated the tale into Latin. It is important to return to the original, however, since Hesiod’s pithos refers to a large storage jar, sometimes half-buried in the ground, used for wine, oil or grain; more important, pithos can also refer to a funerary jar.

Greek pithos, in Louvre ©

Hesiod does not indicate where this jar of evils came from, why Pandora has it, nor why Hope remains in the jar, but it is the last omission that has raised so many philosophical and moral questions over the centuries.

Is the imprisonment of Hope inside a jar full of evils for humanity a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? [According to] M. L. West: “[Hope’s retention in the jar] is comforting, and we are to be thankful for this antidote to our present ills.” [But some scholars, such as Mark Griffith] take the opposite view: “[Hope] seems to be a blessing withheld from men so that their life should be the more dreary and depressing.”

Does Pandora’s jar/box preserve Hope for mankind to deal with the evils released, or does it keep Hope away from man by trapping it inside the jar/box?

This philosophical question about Hope, trapped in the pithos by Pandora, along with the symbolism of Pandora’s pithos as a “funerary jar,” is important for understanding the 2016 post-apocalyptic, dystopian film The Girl with All the Gifts, written by M.R. Carey, who wrote the novel of the same name simultaneously. While most of us might not think of zombies and the Greek goddess Pandora in the same sentence, this film attempts to put them all in the same box, so to speak. If you don’t pay enough attention to the brief story of Pandora early in the film, you might not get the full import of the symbolism. Is the “girl with all the gifts” releasing torments upon mankind and then retaining hope for them, or is she releasing the torments and then keeping hope from mankind?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

In the film, the girl with all the gifts, the Pandora, is a little girl named Melanie, brilliantly played by Sennia Nanua in her first role. She is imprisoned, and treated like some dangerous, depraved criminal, despite the fact that she greets her armed gaurds and captors with the utmost courtesy and respect. She is taken to a classroom, along with many others children who seem to be just like her.

Once there, however, Melanie reveals more intelligence than the other children. Further, her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), clearly favors her, discarding the usual lessons to tell stories from Greek myths at Melanie’s request, letting the students write their own fictional stories, and even, at one point, touching Melanie lightly on the head.

Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

It is when Miss Justineau touches Melanie that we learn why these young children are treated worse than rabid animals. Seargeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) rushes into the classroom to “remind” the teacher why these children are restrained in the first place: they are infected with a fungus that makes them flesh-eating Zombies, or “Hungries” in this film version.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Eddie Parks, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Unlike the Hungries that exist beyond the fenced and guarded bouandaries of this research facility, however, these children are able to speak, think, and, perhaps, feel. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is studying the children, and she is especially interested in Melanie.

Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, in The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Though Dr. Caldwell believes Melanie is merely “mimicking’ human emotions and behaviors, Caldwell also hopes that Melanie might provide the raw material for a vaccine to protect the human survivors.

That is, Melanie’s brain and spinal cord — dissected — might provide the raw material for such a vaccine.

Therein lies the rub: Dr. Caldwell is more than willing to sacrifice Melanie for the good of the remaining humans, but Miss Justineau sees real — not mimicked — humanity in Melanie, and wants to protect her.

Invasion of the Hungries, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Of course, no zombie film would be complete without an invasion by the mindless flesh-eaters, and the research station soon gets overrun by Hungries, causing Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and Sgt Parks to flee the compromised facility — with a masked Melanie in tow.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Now we get the next Zombie-film trope as the group wanders through the desolate, Hungries-infested landscape, looking for food, shelter, and some way to complete Dr. Caldwell’s research for a vaccine.

Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, and Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

Lest you think The Girl with All the Gifts is standard Zombie fare, however, recall that the infected Melanie can speak, think, reason, and love. She clearly loves and protects Miss Justineau, and seems to care for the others as well (less for Dr. Caldwell, perhaps, who constantly eyes Melanie as a brain-donor rather than as a sentient being).

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, and Gemma Arterton as Miss Justineau, The Girl With All the Gifts ©

Further, Melanie is the “girl with all the gifts” — the Pandora who has the jar with the evils and with Hope. On first viewing, I missed the Pandora allusion completely until nearly the end of the film. I thought Melanie was going to have some intellectual gifts that would give mankind Hope. When she proved to be smart but not a genius, I assumed she was going to give mankind the Hope of saving the Hungries, or, at the very least, of preventing the spread of the virus (called a “fungus” in this version of the story) by “donating” her brain and spinal cord to help Dr. Caldwell make the vaccine.

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

When Melanie finally proves that she does, indeed, have emotions and morals, they are not what you might expect, and her behavior recalls the philosophical questions raised by Hesiod’s original Pandora story. Is Hope trapped in the jar to give mankind optimism, or to torment them?

Sennia Nanua as Melanie, The Girl With All The Gifts ©

The fine acting of all the principals helps raise The Girl with All the Gifts above and beyond the standard roam-around-till-you-get-eaten Zombie drama. The film’s very premise — that the infected Hungrie Melanie has an intellect as well as morals and emotions  — makes The Girl with All the Gifts one of the better entries into the post-apocalyptic-world-overrun-by-Zombies genre. The film “steadfastly refuses to demonize any of its characters, instead sympathizing with all their conflicting positions.” The moral complexity of The Girl with All the Gifts is what gives the film its “unique take on responsibility, adulthood, and a new chapter in evolution.”

The Girl with All the Gifts is available for rent from Amazon (99¢, free for Prime members), for rent $3.99 from YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and for purchase ($12.99) from iTunes.

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When A Lonely Man Loves His Ideal Woman: Gemma Bovery, the Film



Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary, details the tragic life and illicit love affairs of provincial Emma Bovary, married to her “boring” but ever-so-faithful husband Charles, yet constantly longing for a more exciting life, which ideally would take place anywhere but where she currently happens to be. Emma B is completely in charge of her life, her affairs, and, ultimately, her death by suicide, though things never seem to turn out quite the way she hopes or expects. The French-British film Gemma Bovery, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds, and directed by Anne Fontaine, ostensibly examines the character of Flaubert’s famous tragic heroine by placing her in contemporary Normandy. The film begins as a comedy, and has some comedic touches throughout, but is ultimately a drama, which is not surprising given that it is an adaptation of an adaptation of Flaubert’s tragic novel.

The first realistic novel, Madame Bovary has been called perfect [Henry James], with “prose doing what poetry is supposed to do” [Valdimir Nabokov], and with Flaubert’s “modern realist narration” so subtle and pervasive that the Voice of the author-persona is scarcely noticed, Flaubert’s “influence almost too familiar to be visible.” But it is the author-persona’s Voice that gives the novel much of its power, since it observes, comments on, and condemns Emma’s fatalistic, bourgeois romanticism even while it seems to empathize with her plight.

Isabelle Huppert as the tragic Emma in Madame Bovary ©

Almost as important as this Voice in Madame Bovary is the fact that Flaubert’s novel starts and ends with several chapters on Madame Bovary’s husband, Charles, the provincial physician who cannot ever quite believe his luck in getting such a charming and beautiful woman for his wife. Many readers miss the fact that Charles is the emphasis of a substantial portion of the novel long before the titular heroine is even introduced, and that it is Charles who finishes the story after Emma has committed suicide by ingesting arsenic. By taking the emphasis off Emma at both the beginning and the end of the novel named after her, Flaubert is directing his readers’ attention to Emma’s most wounded victim, her husband Charles.

Jean-Francois Balmer (Charles, in background L) and Isabelle Huppert (Emma) in the Oscar-winning 1991 film, Madame Bovary ©

Some viewers and critics also missed this framing technique in the film adaptation Gemma Bovery. Just as Charles, with his idealized image of Emma, begins and ends Flaubert’s novel, the transplanted baker Martin Joubert begins and ends the film, giving viewers his idealized albeit tragic fantasy version of Gemma, not necessarily presenting Gemma as she might really be. It is this view of Gemma, this Martin-narrated perspective, that changes the focus of the film from adulterous Gemma to that of the completely unreliable narrator of the film, the lovelorn baker himself.

Luchini as baker Martin Joubert in Gemma Bovery ©

Critics who found the film a nothing more than a “frothy modern sex comedy” or a “cheeky, literary mash-up” that is both “sugary and soapy,” missed the major premise of the film. Though much of the film’s comedic moments come from the characters’ “infinite capacity to misunderstand each other,” its tragedy derives from that same misunderstanding. Gemma Bovery is not about Gemma, the ostensibly modern equivalent of Flaubert’s Emma. Instead, it is about how men view women as sexual objects, how men idealize women as Madonnas even as they view women as whores, and how men can love a woman without ever really knowing her.

Fabrice Luchini as baker Martin and Gemma Arterton as Gemma in Gemma Bovery ©

Specifically, Gemma Bovery is about how one lonely man, the baker named Martin, views women, how Martin confuses real-life women with his literary heroines, and how Martin views one woman in particular, Gemma, whose name alone reminds him of his favorite novel, Madame Bovary. Almost as tragic as Emma B’s husband Charles, Martin the baker is madly in love with Gemma B, but she scarcely notices him, and it is the comic-tragic character of Martin that gives the film its power.

Gemma Arterton as Gemma and Fabrice Luchini as Martin in Gemma Bovery ©

Martin Joubert, splendidly played by Fabrice Luchini, is an ex-Parisian editor who has settled in the (fictional) village of Bailleville, in Normandy, to become a baker, thinking he would be happier in the more provincial location, where people care about living. Alas, Martin is not happy. He virtually ignores his lovely and insightful wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier), though she works alongside him at the bakery,

Isabelle Candelier as Valérie and Fabrice Luchini as Martin, Gemma Bovery ©

makes cutting sarcastic remarks to his clever son Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), and regards everyone in the village with an almost disdainful, emotionally distant eye. At the start of the film, Gemma is already dead, and her husband Charles is burning her clothing in a bonfire in the backyard. Martin, supposedly worried that Charles is so grief-stricken that he will commit suicide, goes over to comfort him. There, he learns that Gemma kept journals, which Charles cannot bring himself to read, and which Martin steals.

Though ostensibly viewed from the perspective of Gemma’s intimate diaries, the story is still from Martin’s perspective since he “imagines” everything else that happens in the film, viewing even Gemma’s adulterous liaisons from his own vivid viewpoint.

Charles Bovery (Jason Flemyng) and his wife Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Gemma Bovery ©

Martin’s imagination involving Gemma begins when Martin introduces himself to the British couple who has purchased the rather decrepit property across the road. Upon learning that their names are Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charles Bovery (Jason Flemyng), Martin immediately launches into a fantasy about the couple, especially about Gemma, imagining her to be the tragic leading lady of Flaubert’s masterpiece. Likening himself to a director at one point in the film, Martin almost seems to fancy himself as another Flaubert: relating — and attempting to control — the story of a beautiful, sensual woman who does not know the consequences of her adulterous behavior or the impending tragedy awaiting her.

Gemma Arterton as Gemma Bovery ©

Once Martin is convinced that Gemma B is merely a modern day reincarnation of Emma B, her story becomes one of a bored, pampered housewife, whose ennui cannot quite be explained, but which is symbolized by long pensive stares out a rainy window, sighs, dissatisfaction with their crumbling home, and a vague unhappiness with her kindly husband Charles. Everything about Gemma is sensual and exciting, from the way she kneads bread for the first time in Martin’s bakery

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) kneading bread, Gemma Bovery ©

to the way she pours Martin tea when he is answering a legal claim for her,

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Martin (Fabrice Luchini), Gemma Bovery ©

from her reaction after getting stung by a bee

Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Martin (Fabrice Luchini), and Hervé (Nils Schneider) in Gemma Bovery ©

to the way she dances — solely in Martin’s imagination — with one of her lovers after having torrid, adulterous sex.

Hervé (Nils Schneider) and Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Gemma Bovery ©

Martin is so obsessed with Gemma-Emma that he becomes almost creepy, following her everywhere, spying on her, and, aided posthumously by her diaries, vividly imagining anything about Gemma’s private life that he does not witness first-hand.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) visiting Hervé (Nils Schneider) for a sexual rendezvous, Gemma Bovery ©

It is a credit to Luchini’s performance that Martin doesn’t degenerate into a scary stalker. His view of Gemma may be exaggeratedly sensual and recklessly sexual, but Martin is still madly in love with her himself, and Luchini’s poignant portrayal of Martin never lets the viewers forget that.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Martin (Fabrice Luchini), Gemma Bovery ©

As in the novel through which Martin interprets her, Gemma embarks on a series of adulterous affairs, though no reason is ever given for them. She was spurned, before marriage to Charles, by her adulterous lover Patrick (Mel Raido), who happens to be friends with boorish neighbors Wizzy (Elsa Zylberstein ) and Rankin (Pip Torrens), and who comes back into her life when she is emotionally vulnerable.

Wizzy (Elsa Zylberstein ), husband Rankin (Pip Torrens), and friend Patrick (Mel Raido, back to camera), Gemma Bovery ©

Gemma also gets sexually involved with a wealthy aristocratic Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider) who, contrary to his parallel character in the novel, Rodolphe, falls in love with Gemma himself, and it is this latter relationship that the baker Martin most attempts to control, fancying himself more knowledgeable about life and love, I suppose, than anyone else in the story.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Hervé (Nils Schneider) in Gemma Bovery ©

Yes, Gemma Bovery is a tragedy, and like her kind-of-namesake, Gemma dies, but you know that from the beginning of the film, even if you’ve never read the original novel or the graphic novel adaptation. The real story of the film, however, concerns Martin: lonely, aging, misunderstood, and ignored by a beautiful younger woman whom he adores. And it is Martin that viewers should focus on to get the full impact of the pathos and splendor of the film, for Martin is the protagonist of Gemma Bovery, not Gemma, and just as Charles is the most poignant victim in Madame Bovary, Martin is the most poignant and tragically romantic character of Gemma Bovery.

Gemma Bovery is rated R for explicit sexual situations. Available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (free for Prime members), iTunes, and YouTube.

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