A romance about wanting to see a romance, a comic tragedy about an onlooker willing something tragic, Anne Fontaine's Flaubert-inspired meta-pleasure Gemma Bovery takes as its subject the act of watching the lives around us — and of wishing those lives were literature. Or films: Here's a French film thick with liaisons in the chateaus of Normandy, one whose principal lover, Gemma (Gemma Arterton), upon her arrival at a rustic bakery, announces in English one of the chief pleasures American audiences derive from such movies: "This is France, darling. Look at it -- it's so different!"
That bakery is owned by Martin (Fabrice Luchini), middle-aged, married, and stoutly, comically French, right down to his ennui and nationalism. He swoons for the beautiful Gemma, just in from London -- seeing her, he tells us in voiceover, marked "the end of ten years of sexual tranquility."
Gemma's last name is Bovery, and Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in Normandy, so it's no surprise that Gemma doesn't slip off with the sweet old fool who obsesses over her. Instead, as her marriage stales, she falls into affairs with handsome local swells, all to the fascination of Martin, who isn't above trailing her. He tells himself he's less a creeper than a concerned devotee of literature: "This will end in death!" he insists, to himself, presuming that a married woman's Norman affair in this century must lead to the same doom it might have in the 1850s.
Delicious comedy bubbles up from the contrast between the narrative in his head and the particulars of her actual sex life, which is erotic and humdrum at once, the impassioned couplings interrupted by a phone call from her lover's mom.