I was perfectly content with letting Gemma Bovery pass with a middling recommendation until about the last ten minutes. It’s a slight, easily forgettable, sometimes unbearably lightweight romantic drama with pseudo-literary aspirations, but it’s well acted, briskly paced, and easy on the eyes. Then there’s the matter of the ending: a bizarrely atonal, laughable, and thematically horrid botch job that feels like you just watched the film produce a gun to place in its own mouth and… well, they go through with the job, but I don’t want to get into more graphic detail than that.
Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is a baker in Normandy, generally unhappy with his inherited profession, his relationship to his somewhat cold wife (Isabelle Candelier) and surly, smartass teenage son (Kacey Mottet Klein). His only form of escape comes from envisioning his life through the lens of literary classics. Into his life comes an ex-pat British couple that have moved into the “shithole” across the street from his countryside home. Immediately he’s struck by the young bride, Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), who he sees as a real life equivalent to Gustave Flaubert’s similarly vibrant, but unhappy Madame Bovery. Sexually attracted to the woman, he instead acts as a sort of unseen narrator and matchmaker in her life, but things start to get complicated when Gemma beings cheating on her older husband (Jason Flemyng) with a recently returned attractive younger law student (frequent Xavier Dolan collaborator Niels Schneider). Martin’s regrets start to mount, and he starts wondering if he has made Gemma into as tragic of a figure as Flaubert’s leading character.
For the first two thirds of director and co-writer Anne Fontaine’s adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ novel, there’s an effortless charm. The French countryside looks vibrant and gorgeous, but Fontaine never loses sight of the fact that the people in the area are largely inauthentic: ex-pats and tourists simply passing through with some romantic desire to live a simple country life among a wealth of other ex-pats and tourists. Even Martin is a transplant from the big city despite being raised in the community as a child. It’s never travel porn, but it’s easy to see the allure of the location to Martin, the Boverys, and their equally ditzy high society neighbours (Pip Torrens and Elsa Zylberstein, providing subtle and contextual comedic relief).
Ultimately it’s the work of Luchini and Arterton that keep the movie interesting and engaging, and without them the film would be a bunch of pleasing white noise with little to say about it. Both convey a sense of weariness; a complacency that has been forced upon them rather than chosen. Luchini walks a fine line between being a lovesick friend and a pathetically perverted creeper quite nicely. His Martin takes everything so hard because he hasn’t had anything worth feeling in a long time. As for Arterton, her Bovery has a certain degree of agency, and it’s nice to see a non-judgmental portrait of her infidelities. They make great foils for each other, especially with regard to how little Gemma seems to pay attention to Martin unless she’s seemingly forced to. It’s an interesting dynamic, and the actors are trying their hardest to make things work.
But then there’s a huge problem that starts to arise about an hour into the film. Everything seems to be wrapping up until the entrance of a brand new character with eyes for Gemma (played by Mel Raido). It throws things off somewhat and feels like a new movie is about to begin, and while it’s okay for a few minutes, none of it gets developed enough to warrant the headlong nosedive into the imbecilic climax.
In hindsight and given Fontaine’s past filmography, I should have seen this coming. Her films are often uneven at their best (Nathalie…, Coco avant Chanel), and far too often ludicrously mounted (My Worst Nightmare, the dreadful Adore, one of the worst, most laughable films I’ve ever seen). The fact that Gemma Bovery nearly tricks the viewer into thinking it’s somewhat decent makes the dénouement even harder to swallow. In fact, the film literally chokes at the end. And when I say literally, I mean that in a metaphorical sense, but if you see the film through to the end, you’ll get the joke.
It’s a conclusion so stupefying that I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be tragic, unintentionally hilarious, or purposefully hilarious. Throughout the film Fontaine struggles with tone, often unsure if she wants to play Martin’s obsessions for laughs or for pathos, but at the end it’s hard not to think that the intent is somewhat comedic. It involves a misunderstanding that makes no sense, betrays the audience’s trust in the material, and sends things out not only on a downer note, but the absolute worst downer note possible. I guess it’s great in the sense that I didn’t see it coming, but by the time it was over I wished I hadn’t.
If the movie built around such an idiotic ending weren’t so slight and paper thin, I might have seen through to recommending it. Having sat through the entirety of the film, though, I could never recommend it.