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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Gemma Bovery

by director/co-writer Anne Fontaine

Why does a filmmaker choose to adapt this or that book for the screen?

I’m asking the question, but I need to confess that I operate on a pretty intuitive basis: I read material (that can be as short as a newspaper clipping), I hear a story, and, quite mysteriously, it sort of makes sense for me to try and turn it into a movie—insofar as “making sense” applies to any remotely creative process….

In the case of Gemma Bovery, luck played its part: Posy Simmond’s graphic novel was sitting on my producer’s desk, and I grabbed it out of sheer curiosity (being an admirer of the witty film Stephen Frears made from Posy’s Tamara Drewe).  

I immediately felt charmed and inspired by the read. Firstly, because it is such an original, smart, dark-funny/funny-dark take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—the ultimate cult book to me, my family and most of the people I know—but also because of the wonderful maze it creates between the French characters and the British ones... a maze of mirrors, as it were, since Gemma Bovery deals with an English woman as seen by a French narrator as seen by an English author.... Having a French director on top of that cake (an idea strongly supported by Posy herself, when talks about a film adaptation began) would only add one more layer to what already seemed like a given in the book: fantasy and misunderstanding are often two sides of the same coin.

Our English Madame Bovary fantasizes rural France and mistakes an anonymous little village in Normandy for paradise found, while our French narrator fantasizes the bored, unhappy Gemma, and believes her relatively common boredom and unhappiness are that of a literary landmark. I don’t think this comedy of errors could have happened if its heroes had shared the same nationality, or the same cultural identity.

What made the development of the script so pleasant, to me and to my co-writer Pascal Bonitzer, is that we never had to struggle with the type of heavy clichés and psychological faux pas most authors have a hard time avoiding when setting their story in a foreign context: apart from being a very shrewd observer of people, Posy knows France and the French far too well to slide from satire to caricature. Of course, the very French and parochial Madame Joubert, or the very British and snobbish Rankin, are both meant to amuse. But we’ve all met these characters in real life, only slightly more diluted. Actually we probably all are these characters in someone else’s eyes, and this someone is probably from another country.

I’m obviously very curious to know how an American audience might react to our Anglo-French endeavor. Does distance imply imperviousness, or does it enhance perceptivity? Or a bit of both, maybe? No way to tell.... C’est la vie.

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