Laura CliffordDauber (Daniel Auteuil) is a successful Parisian artist who returned to his family’s rundown manor following the deaths of his parents three years before. Now, facing divorce and a malaise in his work he hires a gardener to restore his beloved mother’s overgrown old garden. The man who applies for the job turns out to be the artist’s boyhood school chum and the painter will have some remarkable “Conversations with My Gardener.”
Every so often I come across a truly beautiful film actually no all that often, if rarely that takes standard conventions of friendship, love and loyalty and redefines them through the crafts of fine direction, a well-written and rich script and incredible acting talent. “Conversations…” is a terrific two hander that highlights a pair of excellent performances by Auteuil and Cesar ward-winner Jean-Pierre Darroussin as the titular Gardener.
Think “My Dinner with Andre,” taken out of the restaurant and plunked down in rural France, with more characters and a lushly rendered story. While the latter film was a philosophical gabfest, Conversations…” has the same quality of intelligent philosophizing but on a grander, more empathetic level. Director Jean Becker, sharing script credits with Jean Cosmos and Jacques Monnet (adapting the Henri Cueco novel), does an excellent job with his cast and crew and the result is a film that had me honestly and emotionally choked up by the end.
This is a beautiful tale of a twilight friendship between childhood school chums who have gone their own ways. Dauber, as he is nicknamed by Gardener, is an affluent artiste whose escape to the country was to restore his laying fallow talent but has, as yet, failed. When Gardener (as he is nicknamed by Dauber) arrives on the scene, he is the tonic that the painter needs in his life. There periodic encounters, as the gardener brings Dauber’s garden back to life and beauty and the artiste restores his past talent, gently shows the warm friendship rekindled between the two men.
The chemistry between Auteuil and Darroussin is palpable as the two grow to enjoy their interludes of reminiscence, talk of the future and other weighty things, like the existence of heaven. Their love for each other is firmly rooted in their developing friendship as each becomes a part of the other’s life. Gardner deferentially calls Dauber “boss” but their’s is a relationship of equals one the artist, the other the artisan.
Conversations…” goes beyond “My Dinner with Andre” by bringing in other characters that affect the lives of the two men. Gardener amuses Dauber with his stories about his annual vacation with “the wife” (Hiam Abbass) to the Brit-dominated resort town of Royen. Dauber has to contend with trying to patch up a rocky relationship with his daughter, Carole (Elodie Navarre), the arrival of his former model girlfriend, Magda (Alexia Barlier), and the ongoing “negotiations” with his estranged wife Helene (Fanny Cottencon). This is a far richer story than the philosophical ramblings of “My Dinner….”
Conversations with My Gardener” is an entry in this year’s Boston Museum of Fine Arts French Film Festival and, of the many that we have seen from the fest, is the best. Director Jean Becker and his cast and equally talented crew give us a simple and elegant masterpiece about the love shared by two friends. I give it an A.
Facing divorce, Parisian painter Dupinceau (Daniel Auteuil, "Caché ," "My Best Friend") retires to his country house to work and places an ad for someone to manage his overgrown yard. Local retired railwayman Dujardin (Cesar nominated for Best Actor, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, "A Very Long Engagement," "How Much Do You Love Me?") applies and discovers his new boss is an old elementary school chum. Dupinceau moves outside to work and enjoy "Conversations with my Gardener."
Two outstanding performances and marvelously written dialogue (director Jean Becker and Jean Cosmos adapting the Henri Cueco novel) make "Conversations with my Gardener" so engrossing that the picture is well on its way before one recognizes its time worn formula. It's a buddy movie across class divides where each learns from the other. It also follows another cliched path I will not reveal here, but suffice it to say, with actors in sync as much as Auteuil and Darroussin, formula is almost transcended.
Once Dupinceau realizes who the workman at his door is, he's invited in and old pranks are fondly recalled. There is an immediate ease between these two, yet a lot to learn. When Dupinceau hears his friend's family knows him as 'the boss,' he frets for something less divisive and henceforth the two refer to each other as Dauber and Jardinier. Dauber learns about blue collar life, one that treats an education like military service - endured for as long as the law requires before entering the labor force - and Jardinier learns to appreciate impressionistic art - but it is, of course, the more cultured man who discovers more about life from a friend with a lifelong marriage to a lovely Algerian bride (Hiam Abbass, "The Visitor") who revels in the same yearly vacation to Nice, his plaid slippers, coaxing things from the ground and the necessity of always carrying a knife and string. Through the simple outlook of his gardener, Dupinceau learns to reconnect with life, recognizing the folly of a younger girlfriend (Alexia Barlier), mending fences with an estranged daughter and perhaps even proving to his wife, Hélène (Fanny Cottençon), that he's worth salvaging.
Director Jean Becker and his coscreenwriters weave a lot of humor into the mix, yet it is always organic, always coming from real life. The two friends crack up at a shared joke at the wake of the village baker, a little dog persists in chasing Dujardin's scooter. After some time with his sensible and simple gardener, Dupinceau can upbraid the pretentiousness of an art appraisal and recognize the beauty in the swing of a scythe. There are also truths to be found - even when we know where it is going, a scene featuring a giant carp which symbolizes death is beautifully played and considering the regard given the French health care system in this country, it is alarming what this film has to say about it. There are themes about 'seeing' and 'not seeing' woven throughout, capped when Dupinceau paints his friend's wife. Although the film is dialogue driven, cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou ("The Man on the Train," "My Best Friend") provides an artist's eye view of nature.
With the groundwork laid, Auteuil and Darroussin are a joy to watch, with such ease do they make the urban artist and country laborer connect. It makes me shudder to think how cloying this material would be played in a Hollywood production. Hollywood conventions may provide Becker with a framework, but he and his actors put a thoroughly French spin on things and remind us just how great good conversation can be.
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