Although Germain Chazes (Gérard Depardieu) is well liked in the French village where he has always lived, he's also largely considered a dimwit, especially by the mother (Claire Maurier, "Family Hero") who's never done anything but denigrate him. One day, as he counts the pigeons he's named in the village square, he meets a 95 year-old woman (Gisèle Casadesus, "The Very Big Apartment") reading her book on a bench. There is such a spark between the disparate duo that they continue to meet in "My Afternoons with Margueritte."
Just reading the description of this entry in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' 16th annual French Film Festival made me think of a film from the 13th fest and lo' and behold, "Conversations with My Gardener" was also adapted from a novel and directed by Jean Becker, who, once again, manages to transcend formula with terrific performances and skillful storytelling.
We're introduced to Germain, looking like an inflatable bop bag in his overalls, after getting stiffed for a job. He then goes to write his name, in a childish scrawl, on a town monument. The village bus driver, the young and pretty Annette (Sophie Guillemin, "With a Friend Like Harry..."), whom we are later surprised to discover is his lover, shakes an affectionately scolding finger at him from her window. He tries to get the attention of a blowsy old woman dancing in her living room because she has mail, but gives up in annoyance - this is Germain's mother, who lives in a stone house while he resides in an old trailer in he garden. Germain spends a lot of his time in Francine's (Maurane, "Palais royal!") Cafe, along with most of the other males in his town, where he gets an equal dose of friendship and mockery, much of the latter over his head.
When Germain returns to the bench, he once again finds Margueritte (spelled with two 'T's because her dad wasn't a good speller). This time she takes the opportunity to read a bit of Albert Camus's 'The Plague' to him and Germain is plunged into a visualization (as are we) of hordes of dying rats. Yet the words are recognizably poetic, even to him, and Margueritte, who believes reading is learned by listening, recognizes a potential literary soulmate.
In just 82 minutes, Becker not only grounds the central relationship with two layers (the educated woman teaching the undereducated man with a world of books; the reflections of maternity and abandoned children between the two), but builds the characters of an entire village along with a history seen from Germain's childhood point of view (Florian Yven in flashback, along with Fanny Ardant lookalike Amandine Chauveau as his mother). There are delicate parallels, such as Francine being abandoned by her younger lover Youssef (Lyès Salem, "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life") to be 'comforted' with Germain's inadvertently insensitive ageisms, which nonetheless apply exactly to his and Annette's relationship (in a good way), or Germain's dreadful treatment as a child permeating his reaction to Annette's desire to have one. And of course, Germain himself is a nurturer, as reflected by his garden which grows the flowers his new friend is named after. All of these things are commented upon by the classic literature Margueritte and Germain read (Roman Gary's memoir 'Promise at Dawn,' Jules Supervielle's short story "The Child of the High Seas") and artfully woven into the film's texture by Becker. The director also uses objects and words to flash back, connecting past and present. The film's conclusion, alas, feels a bit gimmicky, but the actors already have our goodwill.
Depardieu is terrific as the bruised, ill-abused man who is still open to life and challenges and Casadesus is exactly as Germain describes her - delicate, like a bird, dressed like a posy, full of life. The two leads both convey wisdom coming from very different perspectives and education.
"My Afternoons with Margueritte" is a cinematic film about words and how they conjure images just as much as it is the story of a village, a middle-aged man and an old woman and the way life flows from one generation into the next. Becker's "Conversations with My Gardener," a film that uses images to convey feeling, starring that other icon of French cinema Daniel Auteuil, is its perfect partner.
Robin did not see this film.
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