So what was it about Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel that inspired you to bring it to the big screen?
I met Posy, and it started. I knew I could never adapt the masterpiece by Flaubert, but it’s amazing literature – I could never do an adaptation. So when I discovered the Posy Simmonds book, which is a fantasy about Madame Bovary, with modern characters and so amusing with an Anglo-Saxon irony, [I thought,] ‘I like the tone of this’. And I met Posy and she’s very intelligent, very cool and very funny. I decided to do a movie to be in that spirit, but to be free also, to invent scenes that don’t exist in the book because I felt very close to the character of the baker, who is like a movie director. Everything he looks at, he imagines characters as he wants to imagine them, but Gemma is not Madame Bovary, a modern, English girl. For me, this is an intelligent comedy about culture, but also about love.
When adapting a novel, what you’ve read, you’ve visualised in a way that’s personal to you. With a graphic novel, it’s been done for you – is that then a challenge to establish your own look and tone?
That’s the difficulty, and you have to fight against that. A movie has human beings, alive; it’s not little drawings. That’s what I thought about: life, not drawings. Posy actually told me today that the character of Gemma Bovary is more sympathetic, more warm, and nicer than she is in the graphic novel – because she’s more human, more complex. So that was a difficulty because the drawings are beautiful and I had to fight against them, because I didn’t want to do the same.
When you say Gemma was more endearing in the movie, was that a conscious decision to make her that way on your part? Or did that just come with casting somebody as likeable as Gemma Arterton?
Both things. I didn’t think Posy’s character was very moving. I worked more on the fragility and vulnerability of this age, where you try things, you are waiting for something more intense. If you choose somebody who has such grace – and is so natural, not cold, not putting a distance between you and the others – and Gemma Arterton has something amazing, when she walks in the door; in one second, you are with her. You want her. That’s what I felt when I cast [her]. I looked at many other actresses before Gemma, but I was cold. When she enters, and she says ‘bonjour Anne” – I couldn’t resist her. If I can’t resist her, then the baker can’t resist. She’s amazing, she has proximity. She’s beautiful and sexy, but in a way that you think she’s also a human. I hope you think the same?
Well, yeah – of course.
She doesn’t manipulate men though. I didn’t like the idea of Gemma Bovary manipulating men. I felt that with her. I also felt she has a body – and that is important. The baker doesn’t fuck her, he looks at her, he imagines things. When you look at her you think things. Even me. I am a girl, but it’s the same. Also, she’s fresh and smart – and this mixture is rare. I saw six or seven well-known English actresses, but to have this mixture, and to be not in love, it’s difficult. I wanted to choose somebody you can’t resist, and Gemma Arterton has something you can’t resist. You are a man – you agree with me? I am a director, I know when you can’t resist.
[Laughs] As you mentioned, we do embody the baker in this movie – but would you say that Gemma’s husband Charlie is the emotional core of the story?
He’s the good guy. He’s very nice and very pure, and the empathy goes with this character because he’s not manipulating anybody. He has the elegance not to say things. Maybe he’s a little boring though, and Gemma needs more surprise in her life because good guys are a little boring. That’s the problem. But we like this character, yes – he’s brave and generous.
Jason Flemyng – who plays Charlie, of course – has been complimenting your filmmaking style, where you keep the camera rolling longer than the scene should be. What was the idea behind that?
It’s because I always think that it’s like terrorism to say ‘action’ or ‘cut’. I think sometimes something can happen in the five or six seconds after. In the silence, or when with an actor like Fabrice Luchini, who is somebody who improvises, you can have things that escapes the script. You have to fight against the script when you shoot a movie, fight against each scene. I like the idea, when working with good, interesting actors, to let them be. They are in character, and I keep things in the movie that haven’t been written. Things they invent. When you choose an actor it’s not just to play a part, it’s to be the character. Sometimes they have a better point of view than you, because they’re inside, they can discover something. Jason was surprised because he had never worked like that before, he’s worked with directors who are more technical. He told me that. I asked him if he liked it and he said he did, because it makes the work more interesting for them, it gives them more responsibility.
Did you allow Fabrice Luchini the chance to go off script a lot?
A lot? No. He’s an actor with a very strong personality, and I chose him because he can be the baker in one second, you believe he’s obsessed by Bovery. I let him improvise a little, but not a lot – because he’s very famous in France, everybody knows him well and the way he plays, so we had to control that. The baker is a moving part, he is lonely, and he can’t say to the girl that he wants to be with her or make love with her. He’s on this trip alone, and I like the fact he is sober in the movie. Still funny, but also he has moments of loneliness, because he’s a man who spends time in his imagination, not in reality.
You seem inclined to make movies in so many places in the world – the next being in Poland of course, while also having real international casts. What’s the appeal for you?
[Laughs] That is true, I am international. I’m surprised myself, to one day be in Australia, and now I’ve finished a movie in Poland, I ask myself why I do that. And it’s because I’m not from France, I was raised in Portugal and I’m like an immigrant. The second thing is that I like to be in a culture I don’t know. I didn’t know Australia at all. Poland was worse – I didn’t understand Polish. But I feel like putting myself through these difficulties pushes me, not always doing the things I know. When you have made many movies, it’s important to be fresh and take risks. I like that. I can make films in France, England, Poland… It’s the story that makes me say yes though. I have producers who propose things to me, like for example, many from America – but I say no because I don’t feel the stories they propose. The script is good, but it’s too normal, a square – not my kind of story. But then the one in Poland, or Gemma Bovery – I read these amazing stories I do not know and I think, ‘I want to do that’. That’s how I work – it has to be a shock to do a new movie.
Gemma Bovery is released in cinemas this Friday, August 21.