Sentimental Education, by David Bax
Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery is a film directed by a woman, named after a woman and starring a recognizable actress in the titular role. So it’s a bit of a surprise when it soon becomes clear that the protagonist is a man. Don’t be deceived, though. This film is every bit as female-driven as the details suggest.
Gemma Arterton plays Ms. Bovery, an Englishwoman who has just moved to a small Normandy town with her husband (Jason Flemyng). Her neighbor, Martin (Fabrice Luchini), the local baker, is a friendly, soft spoken and slightly bored intellectual who becomes preoccupied with the similarities between Gemma and the other Madame Bovary, the one from Gustave Flaubert’s book, which happens to have been written nearby. He becomes so obsessed, in fact, that his actions begin to have an influence. He inadvertently causes the real woman’s life to overlap evermore with the fictional one’s.
Fontaine stages most of her film as a breezy comedy. The music is light footed and the movie is edited so as to glide like a bubble. The lively and affable cast proves more than capable of matching Fontaine’s tone and pace.
In certain moments, however, that pace will slow to a tantalizing crawl. Fontaine directs sex scenes with a feel for the full, sensual experience. Even more importantly, she shows an extravagant, almost tantric sense of patience in scenes of sexual tension. Knowing that the build-up is the best part, she lingers on the look and feel of hands kneading dough or fingers turning the pages of a book. Voices are like whispers directly into the ear. You can hear the sound of lips parting and tongues navigating their way around words.
All this sensuality has a clear and understandable effect on Martin. As an older, married man, he never admits to himself that his interest in Gemma is sexual – and the movie wisely never brings that fact to the surface either – but his captivation is so complete that he barely seems to register how little she notices him. When she comes into the bakery the day after she and Martin met outside their homes, she doesn’t appear to recognize him. The second time he tries to talk to her about Flaubert’s novel, she doesn’t seem to remember the first conversation on the subject.
Fontaine never comments on this imbalance, this lack of reciprocation. That’s because to Martin, Gemma’s own agency is secondary to the subconscious assumptions he’s imposed on her. Men, even kind and gentle ones like Martin, have a tendency to cast the women in their lives in perfunctory roles. In this way, despite having a man as its lead, Gemma Bovery is a film about women, about how men see women and about the minimizing effect that can have on women’s lives.