J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Gemma Bovery: What’s in a Name?

Gustave Flaubert was an exacting writer who often spent days perfecting a handful of lines, making him a fitting literary idol for a fussbudget like Martin Joubert. As a result, when an English woman named Gemma Bovery (mind the “g” and the “e”) moves to his Rouen village, he quickly fixates on her similarity with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Her curviness does not exactly dampen his interest either. Literary obsession will have comedic and tragic implications in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joubert was once a miserable editor for a Parisian publishing house, but he has been much happier since he returned to Normandy to take over the family bakery—up until now. It was Charlie Bovery’s idea to move to France. Even though his somewhat younger wife Gemma does not speak French, the antiques restorer thought the charms of provincial life would be a healthier environment for them. However, as Joubert immediately suspects, small town life is rather stifling for the passionate namesake.

As part narrator and part Iago, we watch the story unfold through Joubert’s jealous eyes. He is perfectly positioned for spying, since the Boverys moved in right across the street from the Jouberts. Despite his obvious infatuation, the curt Valérie Joubert is not particularly concerned about anything happening between them, for obvious reasons. However, when Bovery commences an illicit affair with the shiftless son of the wealthy Madame de Bressigny, Joubert’s rash petulance will set in motion an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable series of events.

With her adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel (with co-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer), Fontaine completely redeems herself for the cringing smarminess of Adore. This is a wickedly droll film that saunters towards its sad end with a strangely carefree but knowing vibe. Frankly, the final ten or fifteen minutes are just about brilliant.

Of course, Fabrice Luchini is perfectly at home with Martin Joubert’s literate humor and angst-ridden yearning. He plays a darkly comic figure, but one that is dashed easy to relate to. Frankly, someone like Film Forum or MoMA ought to program an overdue retrospective of his films. Gemma Arterton alos brings an earthy sensuality to the film as Bovery and earns credit for her diligence learning French. Yet, one of the film’s most notable surprises is Jason Flemyng’s dignified, humanistic portrayal of Charlie Bovery, who is quite the far cry from the put-upon cartographer of the recent chaotic Russian maelstrom that is Forbidden Empire.

Although Fontaine’s film certainly has a smart sensibility, it is never too clever for its own good. Its sly literary parallels, allusions, and foreshadowing emerge organically from a wholly satisfying narrative. There is not one scene that feels forced (but there are plenty of times Joubert will have viewers wincing at his recklessness). Very highly recommended for fans of French cinema and French literature, Gemma Bovery opens this Friday (5/29) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine theaters.

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