Gemma Bovery: Flaubert for the 21st Century

A film offers a new take on the classic novel.

Gemma Bovery, the new French film directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco before Chanel) and based on the witty graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, is something of a satiric take on Flaubert’s famous novel Madame Bovary. The story begins with Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband, Charles (Jason Flemyng), moving from England to a village in Normandy — the same village, as it happens, where Flaubert wrote his famous novel. A local baker, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a former Parisian and a Flaubert devotee, becomes obsessed with Gemma — not only with her beauty but also with the similarities between her name, what he perceives to be her fate, and the story of Emma Bovary. It’s a clever idea, a fictional story about a character whose life may or may not imitate that of a character in a classic novel. And it works for a short film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a script that successfully exploits the comic potential latent within the original novel.

Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s masterpiece, his proclamation of the death of the possibility of any sort of transcendent satisfaction of desire. A young woman whose imagination was formed by romantic novels and the aspiration for passion and ecstasy, Emma Bovary is predictably bored with conventional married life. Flaubert clearly admires Emma and wants to see her as a sort of tragic figure, but that’s problematic in a world that has lost the gravitas of earlier ages. Flaubert is better at depicting the absence of nobility than he is at presenting Emma in a sympathetic way. Early on, he comically undercuts Emma’s idealized vision. Invited to a royal dinner, she encounters a duke. Flaubert describes the “pendulous-lipped old man” as “hunched over his heaped plate, with gravy dripping from his mouth.” What Emma sees, however, is not what Flaubert portrays. She sees a man who had been at court and slept with a queen; entranced, she finds him “extraordinary.”

Emma’s life becomes a series of attempts to pursue an ideal of romance or desire that is lacking in her present circumstances. Each attempt comes up empty; but in the face of failure, she never relents. She simply devises ever more adventurous experiments, and thus her life consists of a series of ever more risky violations of convention. Between the opening of the book and its pathetic ending, she has moved from a young woman prone to fairly innocent romantic fantasy to a character out of a Marquis de Sade novel. For the reader, she is a lesson in the “eternal monotony of passion,” an illustration of how “adultery can be as banal as marriage.” Yet this is a lesson she refuses to learn. Driven mad by the heavy debts she has run up and by her increasingly exotic and extreme pursuit of passion, Emma commits suicide by taking arsenic. Flaubert depicts her violent, self-destructive end in such excessive detail that it comes off as alternately horrific and comic. Indeed, although Flaubert identified with his main character, it is hard to find her sympathetic.

Because Flaubert continues at some level to take Emma and her futile quests seriously — not to mention his own book — he refuses to exploit fully the comic possibilities of her story. A book replete with warnings about the dangers of books, Madame Bovary nonetheless wants to be seen as a great book, offering a comprehensive vision of the condition of human life in the modern world.

Gemma Bovery has no such grand ambitions, and it seizes numerous comedic opportunities, light and dark.

Gemma Bovery has no such grand ambitions, and it seizes numerous comedic opportunities, light and dark. When Gemma mentions debts and tells of her plan to use poison to combat the rats that have invaded her farmhouse, Martin panics. “No poison!” he yells. Gemma, who is in many ways the antithesis of Emma and has only begun to read Madame Bovary, laughs off Martin’s worries.

A bit like the original Emma, Martin finds daily life with his wife and son in the village drab and unsatisfying. He continues to feed his imagination with literature, and, at some subterranean level, he longs for excitement, love, and passion. Of course, even as Martin insinuates himself into Gemma’s life and attempts to guide her in the direction of the sort of passion that dominated Emma, he does not want Gemma to suffer the sort of brutal ending that came to Flaubert’s character.

Martin is clearly a sort of stand-in for the artist, the author or filmmaker; his kneading of the dough in his bakery, scenes of which appear at pivotal moments in the film, signifies his attempt to shape the destiny of the characters around him. But he lacks the authorial control of an omniscient narrator. Indeed, his misreading of, and overreaction to, events is a pervasive theme in the film.

Growing distant from her husband, Gemma becomes involved with a handsome young man. Then a former lover shows up seeking to rekindle their romance. Meanwhile, she begins wondering whether she might not be better off with her husband. Of Flaubert’s book she comments, “Nothing really happens, but at the same time it’s interesting.” Resisting Martin’s literary determinism, she insists, “I’m not Emma Bovary. I’m me, and I’m free to be happy.” Gemma here repudiates Flaubert’s famous proclamation: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

And yet, Martin will not let her be. From this point forward, the film becomes a dark comedy of errors, as Martin and the other men in Gemma’s life misinterpret her intentions, actions, and emotions. The film presents in a more ironic and comic way the same sort of warning as did the original novel about the dangerous power of books — or at least about the threat of meddlesome bakers who have read too much Flaubert.

Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012 by Baylor University Press.  


Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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