Whether you recognise his face from Peter Weir’s Green Card, his name from Flight Of The Conchords ‘Foux Da Fa Fa’ or his body of work from an impressive 43 years in the industry, Gérard Depardieu is a French film icon. Although Western audiences will always equate him with his Golden Globe award-winning role as a man forced into a marriage of convenience with Andie MacDowell, his cinematic output ranges from early television roles in his native France to his recent work in François Ozon’s Potiche. With thirteen Cesar best actor nominations and two wins (for François Truffaut’s The Last Metro and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac), an incredibly rare Academy Award nod (in a major category for a non-English speaking part), four Asterix films and the likes of Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, Randall Wallace’s The Man In The Iron Mask, Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… and Jean-François Richet’s Public Enemy #1 to his name, his career has included fame and fortune on both sides of the planet, as well as the inevitable hits and misses. In his latest feature, Depardieu returns to comedy in a delightful adaptation of Marie-Sabine Roger’s novel La tête en friche, starring opposite 96-year-old Gisèle Casadesus in My Afternoons with Margueritte.
Dismissed as an oaf by his friends and family, avid gardener Germain Chazes (Depardieu) ambles through his life in a quaint rural village. Wandering from job to job all over the town, he chats with the locals, romances bus driver Annette (Sophie Guillemin, Sisters) and copes with his eccentric mother (Claire Maurier, Amelie), happy in his repetitive existence and unaware of any alternative. When his penchant for counting pigeons over his lunch brings him into contact with wily senior Margueritte (Casadesus, Sarah’s Key), their brief connection introduces Germain to a world of possibility. Functionally illiterate after a traumatic school experience, he warms to her fondness for reading aloud, just as she enjoys his knowledge of their garden meeting spot. As each returns to meet day after day, they begin to cultivate a relationship based on elements missing in their lives. For Germain, Margueritte represents the mother he always wanted, whilst in the reverse situation the amiable gentleman provides the elderly widow with the offspring she never had. Over a series of afternoon encounters, the impact each has upon the other grows from slight to substantial. When their unlikely relationship is threatened by those around them, Germain is forced to spring into action.
While this doesn’t serve as a precursor to My Dinner with Andre, director Jean Becker’s Conversations with my Gardener follows a similar theme. Pairing an unlikely couple for an intense platonic relationship, the films are less about the content of those conversations than they are about the act of conversing and what it reveals. My Afternoons with Margueritte is the type of film that could only exist in Europe, but not due to any pretence or any cultural barriers. Indeed, the opposite is quite true: Becker’s film has a universal appeal, and one that was no doubt a crowd pleaser at the recent Alliance Française French Film Festival. It is distinctly European as it is the type of film that one doesn’t see outside the continent much these days, and perhaps would see overtly twee or just plain naff if anybody other than the French attempted this. Undoubtedly saccharine, My Afternoons with Margueritte is a throwback to a simpler time, one in which its light-hearted narrative can play out without the harsh realities of the real world sinking in and spoiling everything.
My Afternoons with Margueritte is a lovely film, sort of the antithesis to the weighty conversational pieces that Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy) explores with a more intellectual take. Despite the references to Camus and other literary giants, this breezy affair demands little intellect from the audience, aiming squarely at keeping a smile affixed to our faces. This endeavour is aided greatly by terrific performances from the leads, especially the rotund Depardieu who carries much of the film on his very broad shoulders. Appearing in almost every scene, he gently plays off the elderly Casadesus, while managing to elicit genuine pathos through his fumbling buffoonery and misguided attempts at impressing his friends. The actor cat is especially outstanding in his role as a cat. Only Sophie Guillemin as Germain’s girlfriend Annette, baffles as the perpetually perfect blonde who has for some unknown reason settled on the ugliest man in France. If you can overlook the simplistic ending and the generally sugar-coated surface veneer, this lightweight film is nevertheless enjoyable.
The Reel Bits: A touching, if ultimately fluffy, way to spend an afternoon with a few familiar faces. While never breaking new ground, nor carrying any particular weight, Becker’s latest film is nevertheless a heartwarming and happy affair.
My Afternoons With Margueritte was released on April 7, 2011 in Australia by Icon Films.