Bewitched by beauty: Gemma Arterton as Gemma Bovery
At first, film-maker Anne Fontaine wasn't keen to cast Gemma Arterton in comedy-drama Gemma Bovery, but, she tells Tom Cardy, she was smitten from the moment they met.
In 2010 actress Gemma Arterton played the title role in the British comedy Tamara Drewe. The film was based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, set in the present day, but inspired by Thomas Hardy's 19th century classic Far from the Madding Crowd.
Now we have Arterton again playing the title role in dramedy Gemma Bovery, also adapted from another Simmonds' graphic of the same name, this time inspired by Gustave Flaubert's classic Madame Bovery.
Arterton and Jason Flemyng play a British couple who move into a small farm in Normandy. Nearby lives Martin Joubert - played by acclaimed French actor Frabrice Luchini - who is obsessed with Flaubert's novel. When he finds out that the couple are named Gemma and Charlie Bovery, he then becomes obsessed with them.
But Gemma Bovery is a very different kettle of fish, or in this case poisson, from Tamara Drewe. It isn't a British film set in France, but a French adaptation of Simmonds' novel, directed and co-written by Luxembourg-born film-maker Anne Fontaine.
Fontaine is best known in New Zealand for 2009's Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou, the same year she also directed Hollywood thriller Chloe with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.
But she's also an actress and that comes to the fore when I ask her how she came to audition Arterton, who prior to the film didn't speak French.
Fontaine, 55, promptly gets out of her seat in a Paris hotel and proceeds to re-enact and narrate the moment. "She [Arterton] opens the door," Fontaine says, as she dramatically opens the hotel room door. She's wearing a big bonnet and she puts everything there [pointing to a hotel chair] and says 'Bonjour Anne'.
"After that she had a little [bit of] the script in French and she read the text with a very musical accent. I said to myself 'Who could resist this girl? Who? Nobody.'
"It was the gestures. She is a very smart girl and actress. She had the courage to go to France and stay two or three months, to be inside French culture and to be able to improvise, not only to learn the script.
"I adored her really. She's somebody with all the qualities for this work and the qualities of intelligence. The problem for an actress [like Arterton] is that when they are sexy and beautiful, it's like the director only imagines them on one level. But we had a very good way of working together. She was understanding more or less the French when we were shooting."
But while Fontaine was aware that Arterton had starred in Tamara Drewe, at first she didn't consider the actress for Gemma Bovery. "I saw many English actresses but no-one gave me the [same] sensual shock and the French accent. Some were good, but I didn't feel attracted enough."
What swayed Fontaine was a recommendation by top French actress Isabelle Huppert, whom the film-maker had worked with. "I told Isabelle about Gemma Bovery and she said 'who is going to play the part?'
"I said 'I have a problem, I don't find anyone attractive enough for me, but of course there is this Gemma Arterton'."
Huppert then surprised Fontaine by revealing that only three days earlier she had met Arterton in Marrakesh. "She's the bomb," Huppert said.
She then told Fontaine that everyone in Marrakesh was mesmerised by Arterton and that was "incredible and charismatic".
"The fact that another actress and an actress as [glamorous] as Isabelle spoke so well of her, I said to myself 'OK, I'm going to meet her'. I organised the meeting and asked her to read the script," says Fontaine.
Some scenes in Gemma Bovery emphasise Joubert's obsession with his new neighbours by the camera lingering over Gemma Bovery's body. Fontaine sees these as "moments of sensuality", but would a male director have approached it differently?
"I think when you are a director you are not in your sexuality exactly," says Fontaine. "Me, I was more in the [viewpoint of a] man in this movie than [a] woman. But I think a man could completely have the same approach."
What was very important for Fontaine is that anyone who sees the film didn't need to have read Madame Bovery or Simmonds' graphic novel to understand and enjoy it. It would be "snobbish", she says to assume that the audience would have read either.
But people usually have at least a vague idea of the story, she adds. "It's an archetype. It is a marvellous portrait of a woman, but if you don't have that [knowledge]. You are not lost."
Fontaine, who is now filming the World War II-set drama Innocent about Polish nuns raped by Russian soldiers, says she is also pleased with how the shoot went for Gemma Bovery because of an unexpected challenge.
Throughout filming she was confined to a chair due to an injury to her right knee. "I had a very serious accident eight days before shooting and I thought I may have to stop."
She spent six weeks off her feet. "It was impossible for me to show the actors how to move [about in a scene]. I had to be confident and that was something new for me."
- The Dominion Post