My Afternoons With Margueritte (La tête en friche)

France (2010) Dir. Jean Becker

In a small French town, an illiterate labourer Germain Chazes (Gérard Depardieu) strikes up an unusual friendship with the well read 95 year-old Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesu), whom he meets in the park everyday and she reads to him her favourite passages from classic novels, inspiring Germain to discover a love of words of his own.

Based on the book by Marie-Sabine Roger this is one of those gentle, cozy and whimsical slice-of-life films that French do so well and puts Hollywood to shame with its inherent charm and simplicity. It’s the classic “opposites attract” tale without the usual romantic bent, instead keeping it a relationship of platonic fondness and mutual gratitude as out two leads essentially find respite from their daily lives in the company of the other. It’s sentimental without being schmaltzy and touching without any due leading of the audience.

It’s not out two leads have particularly stressful lives to run away from but their afternoon chats are a solace that both find mutually uplifting. Germain is the local handyman and while he can read and write, he prefers not to after years of being teased at school by his teacher and classmates for his inability immediately take to the task of reading. There are no suggestions of dyslexia but there is nothing here to dismiss that possibility either.

A hulking brute of a man, Germain lives alone in a caravan in the garden of his elderly mother (Claire Maurier), who is a few gigabytes short of a terrabyte and a woman who showed no maternal affection towards Germain as a child. While he has a girlfriend in bus driver Annette (Sophie Guillemin) there again is no real affection shown other than appreciation.

Margueritte’s pleasure of going to the park is her only escape from the dour and regimented lifestyle of the old people’s home in which she lives. Books are clearly her passion and she enjoys reading from them as much as shoe does reading them. When Margueritte reads a passage from Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) and Germain can see the story play out just from her reading.

Margueritte often explains some of the words and meanings to Germain which he absorbs like a sponge, so she gives him a dictionary and later La Peste to read. Gradually Germain finds himself reading and learning more, and as his vocabulary increases his friends at the local bar who used to tease him, are stunned to see his intellect and self-confidence grow before their eyes.

If there is a message here, other than the importance and joy of reading, is that it’s never too late and Germain exemplifies that. His childhood wasn’t a joyful experience with the ritual mocking at school – which continues everyday at the bar – and the often abusive parenting (or lack thereof) from his mother (Anne Le Guernec in the flashbacks) which also never seemed to abate in old age.

Germain doesn’t submerge himself in reading to escape these things, he does it out of a genuine and personal interest, embracing the same love that Margueritte possesses. For Marguerite she clearly delights in sharing these words and her own interpretations and meanings behind them with Germain, and such is the effect of these scenes the audience is equally immersed in Margueritte’s literary lessons.

The other aspect of the story is the relationship between this veritable odd couple, which, as suggested earlier, is love that blossoms between them but not in any lascivious way to be exploited in a sensationalist manner, but a pure, honest and affectionate love born out of a tender friendship.

Germain always feels he can’t do anything for marguerite in return for the doors she has opened for him, outside of making a walking cane for her when she admits her health is failing, but a surprise development in the final act for the big man rectifies this and solidifies the meaning and seals the future of this unusual coupling.

Gérard Depardieu has been in the news recently for many reasons but his acting hasn’t been one of them. Watching this film and his truthful performance of the hulk with a heart is a stark and welcome reminder of why he is one of France’s greatest exports. Lumbering around mostly in his work dungarees and possessing an understandably brusque manner in light of his childhood, it is hard to imagine that Germain could also be an emotionally frustrated human being behind the bulk and Depardieu conveys all of this with the acute awareness of a true veteran.

Speaking of veterans, Gisèle Casadesu was a sprightly 96 when she played 95 year-old Margueritte and honestly, she doesn’t look much over 80! Despite the little stretch needed for the role Casadesu embodies everything that this frail, intelligent and lonely woman with a nuanced performance that is as spirited as it delicate. As a result the chemistry between her and Depardieu is undeniably believable and the backbone of the film.

If you are looking for a simple, affecting and heart warming feel good film then My Afternoons with Margueritte fits the bill like a cool breeze on a summer day. And at just seventy-five minutes it’s a perfect lazy afternoon film that doesn’t demand too much of the viewer other than to sit back and enjoy.