Sentimental French film is no top-shelf vehicle, but Depardieu savors it as if it were the rarest vintage Bordeaux.
It is a common complaint that “They don't make them like they used to.” And when on rare occasions they do, there are usually complaints that the film is too old-fashioned.
You can't get much more old-fashioned than veteran Gallic director Jean Becker's new My Afternoons with Margueritte a movie that but for a few (very few) modern details might as well have been made circa 1933. That was the year Becker was born—and when Marcel Pagnol was halfway though his “Fanny” trilogy, a series of interconnected features that would definitely be in the running as the most beloved French films ever made. Their working-class rogues and weary yet wistful dames were archetypes perhaps a little too quaint to fully ring true even eight decades ago, but who cared? They were exactly as lovable and their entanglements as charming as intended.
The world of Afternoons is much more anachronistic—are there still French villages this delightful, populated by adorable eccentrics who seem to do little more than argue amusingly with one another at the local cafe? Were there ever? Our era is cynical when not downright apocalyptic. It's one thing to suspend the disbelief necessary for a CGI-driven action fantasy, to which the rules of reality really don't apply; it's another to let a film like this present us with a vision of “the simple life” as if it had just been thawed after eight decades' cryogenic preservation. Becker doesn't even seem aware of the disconnect, or has willed himself—and us—not to be.
For 82 minutes—no pretensions of epic grandeur for this movie—you just might be willing to suspend that much disbelief. My Afternoons with Margueritte is broadly comedic and sentimental in exactly the places you expect. It's also enjoyable in ways so uncomplicated you might well feel a little embarrassed afterward to have been so easily taken. As far as guilty pleasures go, however, this one is a pretty harmless indulgence. It's a movie you can safely take your grandmother to and both be entertained.
The redoubtable Gerard Depardieu plays Germain, a middle-aged odd jobber who lovingly tends to his vegetable garden and has an adoring bus-driver girlfriend in Annette (Sophie Guillemin, who is 30 years' the actors' junior—something glaringly obvious here yet never commented on), but feels himself a failure in life. He's certainly treated that way by the mother (Claire Maurier) who was a self-centered monster during his childhood and isn't unimproved as a senile old bag. Even Germain's cafe buddies, no community pillars themselves, laugh at his barely-literate yokel ways. Flashbacks reveal not just the extent of ma's cruelty but also the formative ridicule of a teacher who made our hero feel like the class dunce.
One day Germain chances to meet Margueritte (97-year-old Gisele Casdesus, who's been in films since 1934), a charming elderly lady who enjoys sitting in the park reading, while he sits watching the pigeons he's chosen names for. Before you know it she is introducing this lug to Camus, Romain Gary, and other literary heavyweights. Germain's self-esteem rises, his lit quotes wow the cafe crowd, and love blossoms—with someone 30 years his senior, this time.
That love remains chaste, of course, because while cinema seldom seems to mind male movie stars bedding drastically younger starlets onscreen, doing the nasty with a senior. . . ? But I digress. While it celebrates the dawn of an intellect in rough-hewn Germain, My Afternoons with Margueritte itself is hardly brain food for viewers—it's more like a still-warm, home-baked cookie, celluloid comfort food.
But the thing is, it is cute and touching, however calculatedly so. And Depardieu, one movie star you can actually likes for not caring what you think of him off-screen (his recent peeing-on-a-plane incident would have made practically anyone else look like a total lout, but coming from him it was shrug-inducing), is delightful. He doesn't shirk with this easy material, giving Germain as much attention and detail as he has far more challenging roles. Margueritte is no top-shelf vehicle, but this star savors it as if it were the rarest vintage Bordeaux.
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