With “Gemma Bovery,” Gemma Arterton joins Kristin Scott Thomas on the list of English actors who can speak French in French movies. In the film, she plays an Englishwoman who moves to the south of France and attracts the attention of an academic-turned-baker (Fabrice Luchini), who thinks she’s reminiscent of the hero of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” Arterton herself fared better on her trip to France, which is also a country that offers better roles for women than the fare she was being offered in Hollywood. Indeed, after breaking through with roles in “Quantum of Solace,” “Clash of the Titans” and “Prince of Persia,” she has segued into almost exclusively smaller and more challenging films.
Had you been looking to do a film in France?
No, it just came by chance. It really changed my life, this film. I didn’t speak French before, and I was seduced by the fact that I’d have to learn French in a very short amount of time. So I learned French and now I speak fluent French. I moved over to Paris, and now I live between London and Paris. And I met my boyfriend, who’s French. The whole thing is because of this movie. [Laughs] Now I have a French agent, and I and I’m starting to work in France in French-language movies, which is a dream for me. They make many more movies in France than in the U.K., and many more of my type of movies. This whole new door is open. I wasn’t looking for it to open.
What method did you use to learn French so quickly?
I did this intensive two-week, really hardcore French course, where you stay in a family’s house. I would have breakfast and dinner with them, and then do eight hours of one-on-one French lessons. When I went there I didn’t speak any French. When I left I had enough in me to start speaking French to people.
It must be strange, at first, to act in a language you’re new to.
At the point of shooting I was only six months into learning French. I wanted to be able to improvise between the lines. I was working with an actor who was incredibly erudite and lingual: Fabrice Luchini, who is known for going off on massive tangents about literature. I wanted to have a modicum of comprehension with him, even though most of the time I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I would just nod and smile. When you learn another language you have to learn it physically rather than mentally. When you speak in a language or an accent that you’re not completely secure with, you often to it in a different voice. I know that when I speak French I speak a little higher. The director, Anne Fontaine, has had experience with American actors who had to learn French. They had to learn it phonetically and rhythmically. She said you need to walk around with the text, to do something physical, like washing up, while you’re learning it, so you can be comfortable with it on the day.
Have you gotten to the point where you can read “Madame Bovary” in French, which is often said, more than other translated novels, to be the ideal way to read it?
I haven’t! Maybe I should now. My reading is pretty bad. All I read in French is magazines and newspapers. Newspapers are good because you learn new vocabulary. But I haven’t read a proper French novel. Maybe I’ll start with “Madame Bovary.” [Laughs]