His recent airplane exploits aside, Gerard Depardieu remains one of the great actors of French film. And the fabulous brute adds further to his legacy with the comic, touching My Afternoons with Margueritte.
This film undoubtedly will be scalded by some critics as so much sentimental silliness. But give it a chance: The performances by Depardieu and Giselle Casadesus, as the title character, are subtle, witty and poignant. It's the kind of movie that will choke you up, no matter how immune you think you are to films like this.
Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, who lives in a small French town and does odd jobs. He hangs out with his friends at a local café and lives in a small trailer in the backyard of his mother's house.
In flashbacks, we get a taste of Germain's early life. A large, lumpish kid, he was ignored, insulted and otherwise verbally abused by his harridan of a mother. School was no better; quiet and a little slow-witted, he's the target of ridicule from teachers and classmates alike.
As an adult, he takes his small pleasures where he finds them. His trailer abuts his vegetable garden, which gives him enjoyment and provides some income when he sells his crop at farmers' markets. He has a cat and he even has a girlfriend, a younger woman who drives a local bus. His mother is still alive and still as ungiving and unaffectionate as ever.
One afternoon, while visiting his favorite local park, he meets Margueritte, a retiree who lives in a local senior facility. Like him, she feeds the pigeons (though he has named the birds of the park's flock); unlike him, she comes there to read each day. Reading has never been one of Germain's strong suits; indeed, it intimidates him.
But he bumps into Margueritte on successive days and, before long, begins looking forward to their conversations. She also reads aloud to him, patiently repeating phrases that catch his ear or that he doesn't understand. Before long, she is sending books home with him - and he is surprising his pals at the bar with his references to the work of Albert Camus.
Writer-director Jean Becker keeps it simple: no dramatic turns, small but revealing flashbacks to Germain's life with his mother (including the time she stood up for him and herself with a casual lover by sticking the abusive guy in the thigh with a pitchfork). You see the ending coming a mile away, but that does nothing to dampen the enjoyment it brings.
Becker's tale celebrates the continual human capacity for rebirth and the resilience of the human spirit. In another film, Germain would be a darker, more troubled character, haunted by the pain of his childhood; instead, Becker and Depardieu paint him as a sunny personality, misjudged by those who see him but capable of growth, kindness and even some small wisdom.
Depardieu plays him as a guy who has found his own kind of happiness, despite the life he has had. There's a continual sense of wonder in his eyes, the sense that his ignorance is not willful but simply the product of the way others have underestimated his capacity to learn. Depardieu's warmth gives Germain a humility but also a surprising sense of self-esteem, in spite of everything.
Casadesus, as Margueritte, is delightful: a smart, sad woman who takes great pleasure in her unlikely new friend. She is welcoming without being pushy, accepting without seeming to work at tolerance. Like Germain, Margueritte is an unwilling outsider in her own way, aware of her own capabilities and willing to be satisfied with that knowledge.
My Afternoons with Margueritte is a movie that parts the clouds to reveal a surprising sunniness. Depardieu and Casadesus give it heart, soul and love.
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