Gemma Bovery – low expectation exceeded

I was provoked to go and see the film of Gemma Bovery – a long running Guardian strip cartoon from the 1990s that made fun of English expats in France in the framework of a Madame Bovary storyline – by a review on Radio 4’s Front Row last week. The presenter Kirsty Lang introduced it as ‘set in the very same place where Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary.’ And where would that be, exactly – Croisset, the now industrial suburb of Rouen where GF lived and worked for the five years he spent writing the book?


‘where Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary.’ Croisset Canteleu, near Rouen

Flaubert’s setting was the fictional village of Yonville, closely based on Ry, home of Emma Bovary’s prototype the unfortunate Delphine Delamare. Posy Simmonds set her fable in the also fictional Bailleville which translates as yawnsville and thus works as a joke on two levels. The village in the film is not identified beyond the fact that it’s in Normandy. According to the local press two years ago, it was filmed in various places, not including Ry (or Croisset, obviously).

Kirsty Lang’s guest reviewer Viv Groskop, who ‘has a degree in French literature’ (well done, Viv) – gushed about how Flaubert would ‘absolutely love’ the film because his masterpiece, ‘probably the most classic French novel’ has ‘got a lot of humour to it’ and ‘a real playfulness.’ Well, up to a point. The spiral of debt, deceit, disappointment and death is not altogether playful but there is certainly humour, of a savage kind, in Flaubert’s picture of French provincial life.

Kirsty Lang obviously didn’t think so much of the film, and speculated that the reason it failed to catch the nuances of Posy Simmonds’ parody of the English in France had to do with its being a French production: for a French director to film an English comedy that pokes fun at pretentious English people is a tough assignment.

This is spot on. The English characters in the film are unconvincing sketches, however pretty in Gemma’s case, but the French are brilliantly drawn and great fun: the menopausal romantic baker, his magnificent withering wife and their truculent son; the snobbish anglophile and the drawling aristocrat, appalled by the thought of an Englishman touching her treasured piece of Sèvres porcelain. The dogs are good too.

The plotting leaves much to be desired. The relationship between Gemma and Charles is neither explored nor explained. The lover is implausible, the Rouen cathedral episode incomprehensible, and the ending fails to pull off the impossible transition from playfulness to pathos. But I’m grateful to Front Row for the get up and go.

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