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Side Street Films: Gemma Bovery

Monday, November 2, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

Gemma Bovery is a modern day re-imagining of Gustave Flaubert’s famed 19th Century novel “Madame Bovary”. It is the tale of furniture restorer Charlie Bovery (Jason Fleyming) and his young second wife, Gemma (Gemma Arteton), who move to rural Normandy in an attempt to leave both their past(s) and the London rat race behind.

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Assisting the camera is our narrator, local baker Martin Joubert (noted French thespian Frabrice Luchini), a world weary Parisian returned to Normandy. It is his voice we first hear, reading a passage from the novel. Upon meeting the Englishwoman Joubert is entranced. Mesmerised by her beauty, he immediately convinces himself that her surname’s similarity to that of Falubert’s protagonist is portentous and no mere coincidence. In a short time Gemma also establishes a mutual attraction with Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), a law undergraduate from the local chateau. This initially rouses Joubert’s envy but soon further convinces him that his initial assumption was correct and that Gemma’s life will parallel the misfortunes of the literary Bovary, so the baker takes it upon himself to rescue her from her fate, and the narrative primarily concerns the fall-out from this intervention.

In fact, the narrative begins at the end of the story, with Joubert relating events primarily from his own perspective. He soon gets his hands on Gemma’s diaries, enabling the gaps in the hierarchy of knowledge to be filled in with what he gleans from the entries within them. Consequently, although Gemma is the titular character, the work is as much Joubert’s story as hers, if not more so. She has slightly more screen time devoted to her, but even when he is not present it is his perspective which fills the screen.

Often it is Joubert’s optical perspective which the audience is presented with when the two characters are in the same room, the camera lingering as his eyes drink in every contour of her body. Although these shots are played for laughs rather than for titillation, the feminists among us could decry such an approach as sexist emphasising what Laura Mulvey refers to as the ‘male gaze’ – but their true purpose is to further reinforce the fact that ‘our’ perspective is actually his, and therefore more than a little skewed by bias and a hint of jealousy especially when it comes to young prospective lawyers!

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Joubert is probably given the Paris backstory as Luchini is famous in France, and maybe to French eyes he doesn’t make for a very credible baker. But as narrator and occasional audience surrogate he is ideal. He is affable, intelligent, and easy to relate to, but he is also (lustfully) fascinated by the beautiful Mrs Bovery. Another reason Joubert is important is that, while the majority of the well-heeled folk Gemma comes into contact with are not particularly likeable, his relationship with his son Julien and wife Valerie (Isabelle Candelier) mark him out as the most relatable character among this upper-crust crowd.

Remaining with theme of characterisation, even though Arteton and Luchini take up the majority of the screen time, every member of the cast puts in a great performance. Nor does director Anne Fontaine disappoint. The lensing, editing and cinematography are top notch and Normandy, of course, is presented as a picturesque ideal. Even the brief scenes set in London do justice to the British capital. Primarily though, this film is all about French rural life, French (middle class) lifestyle and French bread. Much of it could serve as an advert to promote the benefits of visiting the country.

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The sense of Gaelic flavour is also reflected in the film’s structure. Although aimed at a mainstream audience, this work does not have the feel of a Hollywood product; it is a French film and make no mistake! It occasionally does reveal its status as a co-production, but this is primarily due to the Boverys being English, which in turn justifies why much of the conversation takes place in English, rather than French. However, this was probably a commercial decision. Other than this exception, everything bears the hallmarks of a French production. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the behavioural traits of the eponymous Mrs Bovary. For although the delectable Gemma – played to a T by Ms Arteton, who fits the role perfectly – is ostensibly as English as the actress playing her, she is no English rose. Her appearance may betray her nationality, but this is merely superficial; her behaviour and characteristics clearly depict that elusive cinematic and literary daemon the ingénue, so beloved of French directors and authors.

All told, this film is not a serious piece, nor is it a comedy. It is a drama which manages to depict many serious events, but also breaks the tension with frequent light hearted moments. It is well made and enjoyable, and suited to most tastes. I do not hesitate in recommending it. In fact, I positively encourage you to go and see it!

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