To viewers, the eponymous Gemma Bovery is an object to feel something about, rather than a being capable of feeling in her own right.
Although Gemma Bovery appears at first glance to be a frothy riff on Gustave Flaubert’s novel, it has a serious point to make. The point might take a little finding, though, in the film’s bucolic depiction of endless French summer.
Based on Posy Simmonds' novel, the movie takes the perspective of Martin (Fabrice Luchini), a baker who takes an interest in his beautiful new neighbors, Gemma and her husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng). A starry-eyed soul with a pragmatic wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier), and disappointing son (Kacey Mottet Klein), Martin develops an obsession with Gemma, convinced that she’s doomed to meet the same end as his favourite literary heroine.
His obsession isn't only academic. Anne Fontaine's film presents Martin as a hapless fantasist with his own sensual inclinations. Some of these are coarse, suggested by the recurring visual joke of Martin’s errant mongrel Gus sniffing around Gemma’s terrier whenever they meet. Some are more typically romantic, indicated by the many lingering shots of her neck, shoulders, and breasts whenever he's considering Gemma, or the baking sequences, during which she handles and eats great hunks of Martin’s rustic loaves, moments that are eroticized almost to the point of parody.
This near parody tips over into near pathology as Martin projects his own existential despair onto Gemma, which she may or may not be living when she begins a vigorous affair with the pretty, predictably idle student Herve (Neils Schneider), summering with his mother in the family’s country piles. Inevitably, the relationship can’t last, and Martin takes it upon himself to save Gemma from her poor decisions, first by trying out his skills in "ESP", and then by more active means. His efforts send her from Herve into the arms of a sleazy ex she admits to being unable to resist.
It may be that Martin's intervention is one of the film's easy targets, as it mocks oblivious English ex-pats, pretentious foodies, and middle-aged romantics. Partway through, however, the movie's tone changes to one more patently tragic. Gemma's marriage unravels and she comes to understand that Martin has been meddling as much as observing. At this point she takes him to task, adding that she is, despite all appearances, "capable of being happy". She’s punished nonetheless (or perhaps because she makes such a declaration), in a manner that is dispiritingly banal, like her namesake and so many other bored, pretty women in fiction.
Whether we read Gemma Bovery as questioning Gemma or Martin's unfulfillable desires, the film begins and ends with him, a figure of fun and pathos who learns nothing at all from his experience. It's possible that this is the point. His reading preferences may reflect or shape his emotional myopia, and the movie may be making fun of exactly that when he introduces himself to yet another new neighbour, this one named "Karenina".
At once channeling and challenging the spirits of its layered source materials, Gemma Bovery can be charming and funny. It can also be perplexing. The central conceit may be that Gemma, along with all the Emma Woodhouses and Gwendolen Harleths of the world, must be made to suffer, humbled in order to inspire the emotional growth of the men around them, even as Martin shows no such growth. Yet perhaps that conceit is a critique of that very idea. In her last scene, Gemma is peripheral to the conflict between her husband and lover, who both ignore her. To them, to Martin, and to viewers, she's an object to feel something about, rather than a being capable of feeling in her own right.