Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is a cinematic hall of self-referential mirrors. The English actress Gemma Arterton plays Gemma Bovery, an English woman who moves to Normandy with her husband, and whose life begins to echo that of Emma Bovary, the protagonist of Madame Bovary, which the 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote and set in Normandy. Meanwhile, a local baker and literature aficionado, played by Fabrice Luchini, marvels at the fact that the great heroine of his youth appears to have found her reincarnation and is living next door. Life imitates art imitating life imitating art. Got all that?
First, the good news: This might be the best performance the real-life Gemma (a.k.a. Arterton) has yet given, broken French and all. The actress is best known for stuff like Quantum of Solace, or Clash of the Titans, or Prince of Persia, or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, in which she’s rarely given much to do except stand around and look hot and/or tough. (In her best film, Neil Jordan’s supernatural drama Byzantium, she shone as a protective mother-vampire, but that was Saoirse Ronan’s show all the way.) Here, as a beautiful, melancholy woman trying to find her way in a foreign land, she strikes the right mixture of polite curiosity and bored uncertainty. Normandy for her is a series of discoveries, but there’s something sadder at play, too; before the character is even introduced, we see her diary, its pages blurred with dried tears.
Some more good news: As Martin Joubert, a man who moved back to Normandy to take over his father’s bakery and who narrates the film, Luchini is also terrific. He’s living a life of pleasant mediocrity, contentedly wasting away alongside his judgmental wife and bored teenage son when the arrival of this younger, beautiful neighbor reminds him of the promise of his own youth. Even though it’s about the sorrows of adulthood, Flaubert’s book blew Martin’s mind when he was 16. Gemma, who has just moved to France with her husband, Charles (Jason Flemyng), reconnects him to all that: A small wave from her “signals the end of ten years of sexual tranquility,” he tells us. Even though, aside from showing her the sensuous side of baking and wooing her with perfect loaves of bread, he’s not about to make any real moves.
Gemma, not unlike her literary counterpart, finds herself in some romantic entanglements, as Martin observes everything from afar with both wonder and fear. He doesn’t want her to share the fate of the original Emma Bovary: When she talks about putting out arsenic to combat the field mice running through her house, Martin loudly protests; arsenic, after all, is how Emma took her own life in Flaubert’s book. He wants to control her world, to some degree — to gain authorship over the life of this woman as she contends with domesticity, boredom, and romantic possibility.
Which brings us, I guess, to the bad news, which is that I’m not entirely sure Gemma Bovery is actually about anything. Or, rather, it’s not about much. Yes, Martin feels his joie de vivre returning with the arrival of Gemma. Yes, his desire to exert some control over her life — out of protectiveness, or love, or jealousy, or pity — backfires in ironic ways. Yes, it would be very strange if your most beloved literary character started to live right next to you. Yes, authorship is a far more complicated thing in life than it is in books. But as we watch Fontaine’s film, these feel less like developed ideas and more like errant thoughts. After a while, the film feels more like a cute conceit that hasn’t really been developed further. It’s intriguing, and very well-acted, but empty.