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Emma gets feminist twist with ‘Gemma’

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Claude Chabrol is dead, but there’s Anne Fontaine to take his place, as a French director who is prolific, reliable and always accessible, and whose work is like an ideal hybrid between French and American influences. Like most French filmmakers, Fontaine is more interested in behavior and relationships than in epic confrontations, but she also has a feel for genre, knows how to tell a story and never wastes the audience’s time.

Like Chabrol, Fontaine’s movies are, at their worst, not bad, and at their best, pretty close to great, so there’s a certain reliability in the product, not only in quality but in subject matter. Fontaine’s movies tend to be about love and its dangers, the darker side of passion. And that’s what we get in “Gemma Bovery,” an entertaining and disturbing variation on Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

Based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, it’s the story of a baker (Fabrice Luchini) living in Normandy, whose new neighbors are a British couple, Charles and Gemma Bovery. As a Flaubert fanatic, he is struck by their names’ similarity to the characters in the novel. He also finds himself with an uncomfortable attraction for Gemma (Gemma Arterton), a woman half his age. Her arrival, he says in voiceover, signals “the end of 10 years of sexual tranquility.”

Most of the film is told from the standpoint of the baker, who obsessively watches Gemma and starts noticing patterns in her behavior that recall Emma Bovary. He notices that she is bored and distracted, which he finds fascinating: “A boring woman who can’t stand her boring life is not boring,” he says. Soon, her restlessness leads to some of the same actions that Emma took in the novel.

Rated: R
Opens Friday at Kahala 8

As the pivot point of the story, the baker is an arresting character, in that ostensibly he watches Gemma with a sense of dread, afraid that she will end up like Emma (very unhappy). Yet at the same time, he seems to unconsciously hope Gemma will share Emma’s fate, even to the point of helping to bring it on. Luchini plays all sides of the baker’s conflict with a clear and complex understanding.

Passion is dangerous. That is the message of most of Fontaine’s movies, and it applies here in interesting ways. Gemma (Arterton) tries to be a free spirit in an unfree world, to assert herself and take what’s hers. But there’s something consuming about the admiration she inspires that can only complicate her life.

Ultimately, “Gemma Bovery” emerges as a feminist take on the Flaubert novel, one that lands in an uneasy place. Again like Chabrol, Fontaine has a way of making you laugh, on and off, for 90 minutes, before leaving you feeling a little queasy from too much truth.

Review by Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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