French film rarely disappoints me, and this “reworking” of art mirroring life as life mirroring art is a gem! In a Normandy village near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert penned the novel “Madame Bovary”. In this same village our imaginative baker,Martin Joubert, (Fabrice Lucheni) takes over. His balanced and peaceful life is made dramatic and intense with the coming of new British neighbors, Gemma and Charlie.
The film begins with a flashback of Charles (Jason Flamyng) burning Gemma’s things. We see lingerie,furniture, and magazines hit the flames of a front yard bonfire. The lovely Gemma’s diary is saved by our baker. The backstory of her marriage and the bothersome calls from Charlie’s ex-wife are briefly chronicled. The tear-stained pages are difficult to read,but we learn that Charles wished for a radical new start in the French countryside.
Back to the present we encounter Gus, the baker’s dog, hot in pursuit of Carrington,Gemma’s pooch. This animalistic and humorous symbolism continues throughout the movie. Our baker’s yeasty risings are paired with those of his mongrel’s. Martin tells us that “ten years of sexual tranquility” is up-ended as he watches Gemma smell his loaves and gather cosmos into bouquets. In one scene, Gemma is stung by a bee. Martin is asked to remove her dress and suck out the bee’s venom. Anaphylactic shock has the gorgeous Gemma ( Gemma Arterton) meet yet another admirer. This young law student lives with his countess mother, and he provides the sexiest scenes.
The twenty-nine-year-old British Arterton is lovely whether exercising, painting or conjugating French verbs. Her up-turned upper lip is photographed in rain-hazed windows and in music-box-like dancing in a cathedral setting. Yet, heels and trench coat out fit her with the tools of seduction. Her printed cotton dresses do the trick,too. Love sick eyes are everywhere, even when her dastardly ex-boyfriend Patrick (Mel Raido) re-emerges to cause more harm. The blond curls and youth of Herve (Niels Schneider), the countess’ s son, only bring about adultery and ugly neck marks in comparison.
But this film is really, Martin’s story. And his tale is a surprising one. Only the French can make a romantic film “romantic” while making fun of romance,too. The French can celebrate life’s tragedies with a joy in life’s craziness. Director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer turned a graphic novel by Posey Simmonds into a refreshing,playful and thoughtful film.
Enjoy Martin’s brief socialist/capitalistic harangue, and his admonishment to his smirking son:” I’d rather you took drugs than talk crap.” Martin’s re-reading of Flaubert’s “….she was waiting for something to happen..” is wonderful and entrancing. Film viewers may rediscover the novel. If you wish to see bread kneaded seductively, beautiful bodies in lust,and a fanciful watcher trying to save the day, see this film as the French “staff of life”. Somehow the French “get it” with cupids and croissants and death and irony. I am joyful that a sequel called “Anna Karenina” may soon follow.