Love, and depth, are all they need
By Adam Bernstein
Friday, Sep 23, 2011
With the title "My Afternoons With Margueritte," you might expect this French movie to hinge on lusty intrigue, banter of socialist politics at a lakeside chateau and a tryst involving Isabel Adjani that might cause Dominique Strauss-Kahn to blush.
But the only affair in Jean Becker's modest and warmhearted drama is between Germain (Gerard Depardieu), an oafish village handyman, and the gentle, well-read retiree who gives the movie its name (the droll nonagenarian Gisele Casadesus).
They meet on a bench in a provincial town square, bonding over a mutual affection for pigeons. She patiently becomes the kind mother and teacher he never had.
Romain Gary and Albert Camus figure large in Germain and Margueritte's literary exchanges. The line "Life makes promises it can't keep," from Gary's memoir, "Promise at Dawn," stabs at Germain. Borrowing from the book, Germain compares himself to an abandoned dog. Until he meets Margueritte, he is indeed a lost soul, suffering abuse from nearly everyone he knows.
An employer cheats him on wages, a pompous wordsmith in a local pub humiliates his simple-mindedness and, most devastatingly, his demented harridan of a mother both ignored and tormented him as a child. Played in flashbacks by Anne Le Guernec, she's just plain dangerous, as when she pierces a sleazy suitor with a pitchfork.
Margueritte becomes Germain's savior, someone he grows to love and trust in ways he can't quite do with his improbably attractive girlfriend (Sophie Guillemin), a bus driver who wants to have a baby with him. Because of his own upbringing, Germain feels he can never love a child properly.
Tenderly acted, "My Afternoons With Margueritte" has a pleasant message about the spark of learning, and it moves at a clip, up until its preposterous conclusion. But it is a predictable, undernourished love story. We never quite learn why Margueritte feels so close to Germain or why he bothers with her. Characters appear and disappear, without much difference.
At its most powerful, the movie shows a man who realizes how much his ignorance has affected him. The dictionary Margueritte has given him, Germain says, makes him feel like a nearsighted man who has been given glasses and can suddenly see his flaws. The screenwriter could have used the same lenses.
Contains mild profanity and references to sex but nothing explicit.