I just watched the delightful film Gemma Bovery (2014)—available to stream on Amazon Prime. This is a pleasurable film to watch if you are a romantic (in the tragic sense), a cynic about modern middle-class life, have read and enjoy European classics (like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Austen), and like watching films with picturesque scenery… so, basically, you’ll like it if you’re a human…? (That’s how I determine human versus artificial intelligence.) It only has a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (6.4/10 on IMBD), which I think is a bit low, but perhaps apt? Whatever, it’s above par, for sure! (See another review here calling it an occasionally “contrived”, “sugary snack” of a film.) It’s just a charming, light piece of escapism. It’s apparently based off of Posy Simmond’s graphic novel of the same name, originally published as a serial in The Guardian in 1999, in which modern people seemingly embody the characters and lives featured in the novel Madame Bovary.
It opens with hands at work in a bakery—flour, water, mixing, kneading—and what sounds like a podcast or radio discussion of Madame Bovary (1856), discussing a particular scene: a waltz at a ball (which was interesting in of itself). We meet said baker, who addresses us directly briefly and serves as the narrator for the film.
He opens with a wonderful description of himself and his worldview to set the stage.He says, “My name is Joubert. Martin Joubert. I came back to Normandy seven years ago to take over my father’s bakery. After twelve stressful years at Pelletier Publishers, annotating university theses no one would ever read, I hoped to find here, like many other Parisians as dumb as me, a peaceful and balanced life. A peaceful and balanced life. Fat chance.”
Right off the bat, I love him. I can relate to the dream of escaping to some bucolic life in a rustic area of France. Or Italy. Hello, Diane Lane in Tuscany! But we also know that this is only going to set him up for failure. Under the Tuscan Sun this is not, though it plays with that trope of a city person trying to start over in the country, only to realize that it’s not the location that needs to change to find happiness, but something within oneself. (Or something.)
So, the baker is worried about a neighbor named Charles. He arrives to find Charles burning a woman’s clothing (bra burning, baby!) and personal items in a bonfire in his yard because he can’t handle having them.
That’s all we know. Joubert steals the journal of the as yet unidentified woman, which Charles can’t bring himself to read. Joubert returns home to begin reading his contraband. (This is all in the first few minutes.) This is how the story is told.
Stop here if you’re Bri and you have an irrational hatred of spoilers. (Actually, if you’re Bri, you’ve already yelled at the screen for spoiling the movie simply because I described a character and told you it’s going to mirror the novel. But, deal with it. It’s nothing more, in fact it’s less than, the cinematic preview! Also, if it’s obviously based on the original source material, albeit twisted or updated, I don’t think spoiler warnings apply anymore.)
We flash back first to the woman, Gemma, on her wedding day to Charles. They’re happy, but soon we cut to Gemma staring out a window at the rain. As any self-respecting viewer should realize, this is a cinematic CLUE as to a woman (or man) being depressed. (Feel free to use this to evaluate your nearest and dearest. If you ever spy your sig.O. staring out the window at the rain, then basically you’re screwed because that person is depressed and maybe cheating on you. It’s a fact!)
Anyways, she writes that Charles was the one who wanted a change—to move to some place “peaceful…a place where the art of living is taken seriously.” Accio rustic but picturesque cottage in Normandy!
Our baker Joubert meets his new neighbors who, coincidence would have it, are named Gemma and Charles Bovery! And they’re in Normandy! Where Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary!
Our editor-cum-baker is beside himself. He is the ultimate romantic (though also a cynic, which we’ll get to later). At times he reminds me of an elderly male Marianne from Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but also Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, with his dismissive and cynical attitude toward his son. At the dinner table, when his son refers to the video game Call of Duty, he tells him, “I’d rather you took drugs than talk crap [about literature].” Priorities!
If the name wasn’t enough for Joubert, Gemma and Charlie enter the bakery and Gemma is entranced by it all. She walks in to his bakery saying, “This is France, Charlie!” and she sighs in a carb-induced state of ecstasy. Needless to say, Joubert is smitten. Entranced. This is also when we first get an idea that this is a story ultimately seen through the lens of Joubert—even when we at times get to view scenes that he was not privy to, because ultimately he’s the one reading the diary and reminiscing, and thus we, the audience, see Gemma in exaggerated, sensual ways as Joubert saw her. I love this decision because it consistently made me question whether or not I could trust Joubert as a narrator. Later on, there are a few scenes in costume or period-era dress that we know are envisioned by Joubert, but other times, how are we supposed to evaluate what we see? How much is in Joubert’s head? I loved the slight sense of uncertainty this added to the film. He soon falls in lust with her.
He quotes from Madame Bovery from time to time, as you’d expect. So, he projects onto Gemma, as he stares at her looking pensively into the distance, that “in the depths of her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen,” like her fictional persona.
Meanwhile Joubert’s wife sees what is happening and is more dismissive, concluding that Gemma is naught but a boring, dissatisfied woman. Joubert retorts that “A boring woman who can’t stand her boring life isn’t that boring.”
Soon after, we have a scene filled with sexual tension (to Joubert) as he teaches Gemma how to bake bread. It’s shot in such a standard way to let us know that this is supposed to be a sensual interlude.We have the beautiful young woman as supplicant, eager to learn from the wiser, more experienced man. The man intrudes on her personal space behind her. Teaching her.
He doesn’t go so far as to pull the standard flirting demonstration move—the man’s arms encircle the woman as he provides hands-on guidance on how to swing a golf club, or shoot a pool cue, etc. But she exudes just the right amount of ignorance (learning French is hard!) mixed with curiosity and a willingness to be instructed, which as Jane Austen has taught us in Northanger Abbey (1803), is beneficial if not necessary for a woman seeking a man: “Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well−informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” (I love that line, and that entire book. So perfect.)
Meanwhile, Gemma and Joubert in the bakery… (This scene was just so hilarious to me!) She has to put up her hair, exposing her delicate and vulnerable nape, only to leave a few wisps of hair tickling her shoulders, her neck, the shell of her ear. She even removes her sweater because it is so warm. Meanwhile, she is constantly undulating ever so slightly as she kneads the dough, all while Joubert waxes poetic about how “touching bread is like touching the earth,” going so far as to allude to the act of creation, “the original crust from where life sprang,” describing it, amid stilted, breathless pauses, saying that there is “nothing more natural…nothing more humble...”—before concluding, more dryly—”…than…wheat.” Annnnd we’re back to the present. Yes, wheat! Wheat is S-E-X-Y. And baking is MAGIC! (How does yeast even work?!?! #MAGIC) Fuck you, gluten-free diets!
Continuing with the early stages of Joubert’s infatuation and projection, Joubert begins discussing the novel Madame Bovary with Gemma, who hasn’t read it.
What follows is his continued fascination—obsession?—with Gemma and her life, particularly her love and sex life. Like any interesting narrator, he can’t resist meddling in the lives around him. We get some drama, but we’re still watching with, and through, Joubert.
At times feels like he is speaking to us, and at other times it simply feels like he’s talking to himself and his dog.
Not only is Gemma Bovery reminding him of Emma Bovary, but he fills in the other characters, as well.
And again, later on, immediately after a sex scene, we transition to a scene more in line with the era of the book, in which we see the couple dancing (I liked this shot).
This dancing is quickly followed by a return to Joubert, who is sitting alone, musing about all of it, stuck in the novel as much as he is obsessed with his actual neighbors.
So, again, we’re left with his interpretation of events, real and imagined.
Even the cliché scenes (lingerie and a trench coat!) worked for me because I felt like it was due to the fact that Joubert is imagining all of this (and reading about it), so it makes a sort of sense for the scenes to play out like this, with Gemma as the object of male desire.
As much as Gemma’s body is up front and center for most of the film—and the camera does several slow pans of her entire body and close-up shots of specific body parts—her thoughts and motivations remain largely out of focus.
We get one or two glimpses of Gemma asserting herself, but she remains primarily a subject and an object for the men and women around her. Again, this felt appropriate to the way the story was told. It’s intentionally not her story, though it’s about her.
I’m not going to give away the ending, but I thought it was just the right tone to match the rest of the film. Contrived, yes, but in a good way. All in all, appealing and diverting!
Noteworthy random moments:
- I love this back-handed compliment from the wealthy and tastless frenemy.I’m going to start complimenting people’s homes this way. It’s so Middle Ages!
- And good ol’ Joubert, who is rather terrible at small talk and socializing. His diatribes and asides are so great. Tips on light dinner conversation below! When in doubt, bring up socialism!
- Critique light conversation! Joubert, I’d invite you to my dinner any time! I also think we should all be saying, “Long live couscous!” a lot more.
- And the bee scene! I feel like sucking the venom was not necessary? I thought that was only like poisonous creatures that shall not be named?! So delightfully absurd.
- Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Gemma Arterton is a fantastic gorgeous woman (and her boobs!) and I can’t even handle it. I’d watch her do just about anything.
- This moment of levity after the tragi-comic end.
- And for the final wink at the audience, Joubert’s new neighbor is, according to his joking son, Russian and with a last name that starts with K… Joubert can’t help himself!
Have you seen it? Did you like it or find it trite? Watch it!