Gemma Bovery: the Luchini effect
by Guilhem Caillard
- Based on Posy Simmonds' eponymous graphic novel published in 1999, Gemma Bovery has endeared itself to the audience at the Angoulême French Film Festival
The new film by Anne Fontaine is built, first and foremost, on “the Luchini effect”. Fabrice Luchini as a phenomenon, the well-read orator, the great wordsmith of laments and scathing critiques on the banality of the world around him. And indeed, in the opening shots of Gemma Bovery [+see also:
film profile], we see him where we have been so eager to see him: isolated in the heart of rural Normandy, by his own choice, after having fled the foolish pace and cultural buzz of his once-beloved Paris.
Here, Luchini is cut from a somewhat similar cloth as in Cycling with Moliere [+see also:
film profile], his previous film, in which he played a comparable part. However, Anne Fontaine visibly enjoys turning him into an artisanal baker for whom the process of making bread rekindles an unparalleled joy. This is the film's first major asset. An admirer of the great authors in French literature, Martin (Luchini) has distanced himself from his primary passion for books; secretly, he remembers the strongest moments of his favourite works, but in the act of baking he has found a pleasure comparable to – and even stronger than – what literature has always offered him. This state of affairs – although not too far away from cliché – provides Luchini with a new playground, and the film with an original approach.
And one day, passing by the door to the family bakery for the first time, a newly arrived English girl named Gemma appears in front of Martin's eyes in all her glory. From that moment on, he is smitten with her, regarding her as a perfect alter ego for Flaubert's Madame Bovary. To him, there is no doubt that the same destiny awaits Gemma, a destiny of unhappy love affairs in a most nostalgic and romantic vein. Anne Fontaine pays homage to the classics of the genre, but mainly through humour – and with that forced laughter that fits Luchini so well, as he plays the role of a frustrated seducer, an expert in imagined and eternally retained sentiments. Fontaine also plays around with the first name of her lead actress, Gemma (Arterton), the same as that of her fictional character. It just goes to show how much the director of Perfect Mothers [+see also:
film profile] and Dry Cleaning wants to lead us into the territory of mixed-up references and emotions.
She does not shy away from making the audience work hard, as the conversations between Gemma and Martin are hindered by hesitations and trepidations, laborious because of Luchini's terrible knowledge of the English language, opposite a young woman whose French is nothing but an approximation. In this way, Luchini, the great orator, has the rug pulled out from under him, and he can indulge a lot less in what normally gives him his strength as an actor – especially as he will never share an amorous intimacy with the beautiful Gemma, only to then confine himself to his role as an observer and discreet commentator on the girl's love affairs. The staging of this unusual “castration” is at the heart of the film.
As a perfect Frenchman-to-a-fault, Luchini receives all of the viewer's sympathy. King within his own kingdom, he is backed up by the scenery that surrounds him, the story's second major asset. Rarely has a little village in Normandy seemed both so inspiring and so suffocating, like an old, impenetrable shell. Once again, Anne Fontaine proves she has a refined and delicate touch. Classical as well as highly personal, this film is one of her most accomplished.
(Translated from French)