We’ve all been there. Biting into a warm baguette from the Boulangerie and strolling over to squish a ripe cheese at the quaint Thursday farmers’ market in the Place de la Victoire or whatever, the thought of upping sticks and living the French rural idyll has been a recurring British dream for years, well before Peter Mayle wrote A Year in Provence.
It’s the story told by that serial skewerer of British bourgeois manners Posy Simmonds in her cartoon Gemma Bovery, now turned into a shimmering film starring Gravesend’s finest, Gemma Arterton. I don’t think she got the part just because she shares a first name with the lead character, but it must have helped.
What really swung it was a boot-camp style immersion course in French that the actress took, emerging impressively fluent after just four weeks. The on-screen results are charming as Arterton becomes the latest in a line of English actresses who’ve found themselves at home in French movies – Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling, Kristin Scott Thomas – although Gemma’s lusty Essex girl represents Britishness in a curvier form than those waifish exports.
Simmonds’ story played with that classic of French literature Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s tale of an unhappy and unfaithful Normandy housewife called Emma, and the new film does the same, as Gemma and her husband Charles’ (Jason Flemyng) dream move from west London to a leaky farmhouse in a quiet village goes wrong.
Not at first, of course. Gemma thrills at the loaves of bread and the choice of cheese while Charles potters about his shed smoking and sanding down bits of furniture. All is rosy, until the first drops of rain seep through the roof and the first mouse scuttles out of the larder, a squeaky harbinger.
Meanwhile, Gemma has had a coup de foudre effect on the local baker Martin, himself having escaped a successfully affluent life in Paris. He’s played by Fabrice Luchini, one of France’s most respected actors (so good in films such as Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule and the recent Francois Ozon comedy Dans La Maison, with Kristin Scott-Thomas, Luchini is still best-known in France for providing literary voice-overs and his one-man stage shows playing Moliere).
Luchini’s Martin is also Gemma and Charles’ neighbour and only to happy to offer help. He is totally stricken by Gemma, partly because Arterton does indeed make her nigh-on irresistible and partly because he’s struck by the Flaubertian irony of the domestic drama playing out over his hedge.
Director Anne Fontaine, known in the UK for her glossy biopic Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tatou, shoots Gemma like she’s just stepped out of the salon. The hair tumbles, the evening sun backlights her, the sugary crumbs from a brioche stick tantalisingly to those full, rosy lips. Arterton is a screen animal, one of the best I’ve ever seen at giving the over-the-shoulder flirty smile. It’s almost become her trademark and it certainly has Normandy all a-flutter.
While Luchini’s Martin provides a constant chorus of somewhat pathetic love-struck awe (his bread isn’t the only thing that’s rising), he also fills in the gaps for those, including his own video-game obsessed son, uninitiated with Flaubert. It’s as if Martin is a frustrated novelist himself, trying to interpose himself in this modern story that’s mirroring the work of his literary hero.
So it’s not only jealousy that grips him when he spots Gemma chatting to the foppish scion of the local chateau, but his literary alarm bells ring as he recalls Emma Bovery’s ill-fated romance with the heartless aristo Rodolfo.
It’s a playful and clever little film (partly in English, but mostly in French) about life and locale imitating literature but it has an attractive romantic patina all of its own.
Simmonds’ characteristically caustic character drawings come beautifully to life elsewhere, such as in the wealthy couple from down the road who hire Gemma to do the interior decorating on their new pile. The wife is played by Elsa Zylberstein who perfectly nails the skinny snobbery of the Parisian banker’s wife just moving back after a stint in Notting Hill. (Zylberstein is a much under-rated actress of whom I wish we’d see more – and, French fact fans, in real life, she is the former partner of Eurotrash presenter Antoine de Caunes).
The film does turn darker, the way Flaubert would have wanted it. Simmonds’ stories have a habit of turning nasty – indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that Gemma Arterton herself was playing another Simmonds sex bomb causing love trouble in a rural idyll, in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Tamara Drew, a story based on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. As the coincidences pile up like cherries in an artisanal jar of eau de vie, we might also remember Arterton’s TV breakthrough role, as Hardy heroine Tess, although she wore a lot of hessian in that one, not tight denim hot pants.
Here in Normandy, Gemma wafts around in a variety of alluring, faintly diaphanous summer dresses until her girlish sex drive (and her French fantasies) lead her up the path to the chateau back gate wearing nothing but high heels and a tightly belted mac. And yes, we do get treated to the big reveal.
All this dot-joining shouldn’t distract from the narrative in hand. Gemma Bovery is a very enjoyable soufflé of a summer movie with a bitter and almost inevitable tragic twist, but these little strands and references serve to deepen the film’s textures and tides, the way Flaubert’s own precise prose deepened the realism of his carefully constructed worlds.
If Fontaine’s film ultimately fumbles the tragedy of its ending, it might be because it can’t work out exactly whose tragedy it’s telling – that of Charles, Gemma, Luchini, or of those poor little Normandy villages whose crumbling chateaux and farms have been snapped up by delusional Brits seeking romantic fulfilment in exposed timbers, a bottle of wine and some very smelly cheese.