A romance about wanting to see a romance, a comic tragedy about an onlooker willing something tragic, Anne Fontaine’s Flaubert-inspired meta-pleasure Gemma Bovery takes as its subject the act of watching the lives around us — and of wishing those lives were literature. Or films: Here’s a French film thick with liaisons in the chateaus of Normandy, one whose principal lover, Gemma (Gemma Arterton), upon her arrival at a preciously rustic bakery, announces in English one of the chief pleasures American audiences derive from such movies: “Oh, this is France, darling. Look at it — it’s so different!”
That bakery is owned by Martin (Fabrice Luchini), middle-aged, married, and stoutly, comically French, right down to his ennui and nationalism. His Normandy, we’re told, is “where the art of living is taken seriously,” a priceless bit of concierge speech; director Fontaine dedicates early scenes to his bread-making, dog-walking, and then his sudden swooning for the beautiful Gemma, just in from London — seeing her, he tells us in voiceover, marked “the end of ten years of sexual tranquility.” Soon, he’s sweet-talked her into his establishment’s kitchen, where he offers her a lesson in the kneading of dough. She relaxes, sighs that it’s hot, and strips down to her tank top, all as he stammers nonsense about bread being like the crust of the Earth from which life sprang. Like his baked goods and his pants, Martin is consistently risible.
But Gemma’s last name is Bovery, and Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in Normandy, so it’s no surprise that Gemma doesn’t slip off with the sweet old fool who obsesses over her. Instead, as her marriage stales, she falls into affairs with a pair of handsome local swells, all to the fascination of Martin, who lives just across the road from the Boverys — and isn’t above trailing her. He pretends to himself that he’s less a creeper than a concerned devotee of literature: “This will end in death!” he insists, to himself, presuming that a married woman’s Norman affair in this century must lead to the same kind of scandal and doom it would have in the 1850s. Fontaine handles the assignations with sympathetic shorthand — we see what Martin sees, but we see more, too, enough to understand that Emma’s dalliances are vital to her but not overwhelming. She has a handle on them.
Martin, though, sees them as the highest of drama, just as he sees death everywhere: Twice he beseeches Gemma not to buy rat poison, as it has arsenic in it, advice she ignores. Delicious comedy bubbles up from the contrast between the narrative in his head and the particulars of her actual sex life, which is erotic and humdrum at once, the impassioned couplings interrupted by a phone call from her lover’s mom. The loveliest detail: a trench-coated Gemma taking her dog into a sun-buttered copse of trees and slipping the rubber rainboots from her feet in favor of the wicked heels in her pocket, suggesting that the theater of the affair appeals to her more than the man, the pure Frenchness of it all.
In the final scenes that bubbling comedy becomes a surge of something tricky and prickly, more Maupassant than Flaubert. Martin seems to yearn for a tragedy even as he acts to forestall one, and we as viewers are curiously implicated in his prying and in the ill-considered steps he takes to help Gemma. We want to know what happens, too, and isn’t it all more interesting if things go horrible in some romantic and tragic way — or, in this case, by the book?