Life imitates art in Gemma Bovery

“I’d rather you do drugs than talk crap.”

This is a line from a father to his son very early in Gemma Bovery. There’s nothing dysfunctional about their relationship – in fact, the family appears entirely happy. It’s an indication of the tone this movie will take: wry and unapologetic.

Our protagonist, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), delivers that hilarious line. After working in publishing in Paris, Martin moves to Normandy to pursue a better life by taking over his father’s bakery. His love for literature is taken to an extreme when an English couple by the name of Bovery moves in next door. The wife’s name is Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), an eerie similarity to Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine Emma Bovary from his 1856 novel Madame Bovary.

This instance of life imitating art proves to be too much for poor Martin who becomes smitten with Gemma and begins stage-directing her life from afar through mumbled asides to his dog. He becomes convinced that she is bored and in need of guidance and when Gemma begins an affair, terrified that she is headed towards the same heartbreak Madame Bovary faced. As a result, he begins the kind of ill-advised meddling that everyone who’s ever watched a movie knows is bound to end with trouble.

Martin is an endearing narrator. He has a big heart as evidenced by his genuine care for the other characters’ lives, but he veers dangerously close to “crazy old man” territory. Gemma Arterton gives a great performance as Mrs. Bovery, but is mostly presented to us the way Martin sees her which is as a bored housewife hurtling towards a tragic end and in need of saving. But as she says to Martin near the end of the film, “You don’t know me. I’m not that woman. I’m not Madame Bovary…I’m free. I’m capable of being happy”. And it’s true. We don’t really know her. Our perception of her is coloured by what Martin thinks and by extension, whatever knowledge we have of Flaubert’s Bovary. Some might say Martin takes “mansplaining” so far he essentially tells this poor woman how her life will play out based on his minimal acquaintance with her and his love of an old book.

One of the more interesting, albeit minor, characters is Martin’s wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier). Martin’s obsession with Gemma might have left us with a tired storyline about a jealous, bitter wife, but Valérie is self-confident and mostly embarrassed by his antics, particularly his attempts to speak with Gemma in English. Then again, it’s also clear that he has enough respect for his wife that even if the opportunity presented itself his infatuation with Gemma would never go anywhere beyond fantasy.

Gemma Bovery was screened at the Spadina Theatre this past Thursday night and the free movie event was hosted by Alliance Française de Toronto. About a minute walk from Spadina Station, Alliance Française is a place for Torontonians to participate in French learning classes and programs, not to mention watch free movies every Thursday. Admission is free and the event is first come, first serve. For those who attended last night in an effort to improve their French, Gemma Bovery was a fitting movie. A joint British-French production, the predominantly French script was punctuated by English dialogue in scenes where the English-speaking characters talked to each other. And just like Gemma who jots down new vocabulary in a notebook she carries everywhere, audience members like myself were absorbing new words and expressions all in an effort to improve our French. Life imitating art, indeed.

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