‘My Afternoons With Margueritte’ opens at the Landmark Century in Chicago, and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park, on Friday, September 30th.
The pleasures of watching the great Gérard Depardieu elevate an otherwise failed narrative film is always gratifying. Many actors can make a fair film much better, but there’s only a rare few that can make a bad film good – Depardieu’s one of them. My Afternoons With Margueritte (La Tête En Friche, which actually translates to ‘The Fallow (or Uncultivated) Mind’) (France, 2010) features, with Depardieu, an adorably cute and resilient mother-he-never-had, a café / tavern full of dart-throwing smartass acquaintances, an actual mother who makes his life a living hell, and a devoted girlfriend whose biological clock is relentlessly ticking. There’s a Fox-TV sitcom here, except Fox would most likely turn it down as being too trite. But Depardieu single-handedly makes this predictable, clichéd, somewhat doctrinaire film about salvaging one’s life in the face of aging wholly believable, genuinely moving, and, at times, hilarious.
Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, a seemingly not-too-bright fixture in his small rural Eastern village of Pons. He’s found enough work to sustain himself, selling food from his garden at the farmer’s market, helping out his friend Francine with her café, and picking up construction-labor gigs here and there. Earnest and hardworking, he’s nonetheless had it drilled into him that he’ll never turn into much; reading and writing is laborious and difficult for him, and he’s always been The Fat Kid, clumsy and troublesome for those who begrudgingly raised him – his harridan mother and impatient teachers. But, despite this, he’s always friendly and generous, looking out for his eccentric neighbors and dutifully maintaining a house for the senile mother who seemingly detests him. And he has a girlfriend, Annette (Sophie Guillemin), a bus driver who loves him just the way he is.
Taking his lunch to the park one day, he meets Margueritte, a nonagenarian who resides in a nearby elderly care center (Margueritte is played by Gisèle Casadesus, a French film and TV veteran who was once a member of the Comédie Française).They hit it off – he with his guileless amity, she with her openness and self-reliance. They make a point to meet regularly; she reads to him, from Albert Camus and Romain Gary, and words slowly turn into images, and possibilities, for him, rather than obstacles wielded by people to keep him down.
Films like this often fail because A.) they club you over the head with Here’s The Funny Part, Now Here’s The Poignant Part, Now Here’s The Conflict Part, or B.) they underplay all of that stuff, in avoidance of A.), in such a calculated way that you just flat-out don’t care about any of them. Jean Becker, an undistinguished but capable, workmanlike director, at least has the taste and confidence to let his actors loose, allowing them to invest their characters with broad strokes while trusting them to find their own credible boundaries. The supporting characters aren’t given a lot to do outside of their functions, but they blend in seamlessly and believably. Casadesus effortlessly nails an underwritten role, and Depardieu’s character becomes damned-near unforgettable, despite Becker, Jean-Loup Dabadie and Marie-Sabine Roger’s scripted efforts to screw things up with their mawkish conclusion.
It seems like mean-spirited piling-on to mention this, but Depardieu’s increasing girth is undeniably troubling. It’s a distraction that takes away from the man’s bedrock intelligence, insouciant charm and good humor. He still owns this movie – he really is that good – but, please, Gérard, mon ami, we’re worried…
‘My Afternoons With Margueritte’ (two ‘t’s, mind you) has all the ingredients of an insufferable ball of syrupy fluff. But it’s saved by the efforts of canny pros who work hard to yank its saccharine conceits back down to earth, and ultimately turn it into a lightweight but agreeable film that’s as easy to spend an afternoon with as its admirable title character.