Film Review: My Afternoons with MargueritteUtterly charming, delightfully acted story of the unlikely friendship between a 90-something bibliophile and the illiterate village handyman she meets in their small village park.
My Afternoons with Margueritte is a lovely, nostalgic accretion of narrative pleasures, seductive locales in rural southwestern France, and visual surprises that recall foreign films of the golden decades when filmmakers like Renoir, Truffaut, Tavernier and Chabrol were in their prime and leaning toward the pastoral and intensely Gallic. Critical support will hopefully help this one along, along with a superlative star turn from ubiquitous megastar Gérard Depardieu and the magnificent contribution from distinguished theater/film perennial Gisèle Casadesus, whose film credits reach back to the ’30s and ’40s.
The story takes place in a small town near Bordeaux where Germain (Depardieu), a sweet but barely literate handyman, lives in a trailer next to the modest home of mother-from-hell Jacqueline (Claire Maurier), a harsh, off-the-rails shrew who once stabbed a lover and begot Germain after a one-night stand. Continuing a family tradition, she bullies Germain, whose only solace comes from camaraderie at the clubhouse-like bistro run by Francine (Maurane) and the love and devotion of bus-driver girlfriend Annette.
But Germain makes another friend, an unlikely one, at the local park where he meets 95-year-old Margueritte, who shares with him a love of the pigeons who regularly convene there. The old lady and the younger oaf hit it off, he because of his kindness and she because of her nurturing instinct. Margueritte loves books and shares some passages with Germain, who has surely never lifted a book in his life.
Flashbacks make clear that his education was stunted by the teachers who mocked him and the horrific mother who abused and neglected him. But Margueritte, with her attention and wise nature, enchants him with passages she reads from, of all things, Camus’ harsh but vivid The Plague and works by Romain Gary and Chile’s Luis Sepúlveda. Becker bravely but only occasionally inserts visual interpretations of some of these literary passages. (The black-and-white scene of the barreling rat rampage in The Plague is the most jarring.)
Soon, Margueritte has Germain thumbing through a dictionary and getting some sense of the written word. His blossoming erudition, however modest, becomes the butt of jokes at the bistro where his buddies mock his new interest. Even Annette becomes suspicious of this new distraction, which apparently involves “another woman.”
When Germain visits Margueritte at her retirement home, he learns that she is a well-educated scientist who has traveled extensively for the World Health Organization. But she is also without family except for a struggling Belgian nephew who helps care for her. On a graver note, he also learns that she is losing her eyesight.
My Afternoons with Margueritte is blessed with local color that captures the life of a provincial outpost—the bistro, the local market, the modest houses, the barren streets, etc. and the kind of compensatory social intimacy that seems indigenous to the French. More importantly, Becker, son of legendary director Jacques Becker, does a wonderful job of conveying the affection that can unexpectedly bind people and the authenticity of a kind of existence that facilitates such feelings.