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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
to the way she pours Martin tea when he is answering a legal claim for her,
from her reaction after getting stung by a bee
to the way she dances — solely in Martin’s imagination — with one of her lovers after having torrid, adulterous sex.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.