Elevating Material, by David Bax
Gérard Depardieu is one of those actors who, like a Gene Hackman on these shores, doesn’t seem to say no to any role offered him. As evidence of this, the Internet Movie Database lists him as having eight different movies already scheduled for release next year. One doesn’t rack up those kinds of numbers by being picky. Still – and again just like Hackman – he’s good in every movie he’s in, whether the rest of it is worthwhile or not. He tends to elevate the material when he can and, when he can’t, he at least elevates himself above it.
In his new role in Jean Becker’s My Afternoons with Margueritte, both Depardieu and his chief costar, Gisèle Casadesus are far better than what they’re working with, making their characters so complete and delightful that you wish you could actually join them in one of their cliché-ridden, park bench bird-feeding discussions.
Depardieu plays Germain, an impossibly well-meaning and exceedingly dim man who lives in a trailer on his mother’s front lawn and gets by on odd jobs and selling what his laboriously tended garden yields. He spends a questionable amount of time at a local pub where he is regularly insulted and treated like the village idiot. Casadesus plays an elderly widow, the Margueritte of the title, who spends her afternoons reading in the park. After a chance meeting and a brief conversation about pigeons, she endeavors to instill in Germain a love of literature. This is where the film actually does shine through its own formula. Her vigorous passion for books is so clear as to be tangible and is incredibly inviting. This film should be shown to schoolchildren to inspire them to enjoy reading. Though I suppose they’d already have to enjoy it to watch a subtitled movie.
Unfortunately, the film is not content to let its two fine leads describe their characters through subtle acting choices, gestures, expressions and reactions. On too many occasions, particularly in Germain’s case, the screenplay steps in with a flashback to his childhood. The life he lead as a child is so remarkably and exaggeratedly awful that it’s a wonder he didn’t turn out to be a serial killer instead of just a guy without much self-esteem. The cruelty visited on him by his family, teachers and peers is at odds with the rest of the movie’s warm and pleasant atmosphere in a way that the director seems not to have picked up on. These scenes are like a Gallic Angela’s Ashes.
Meanwhile, back in the current-day scenes, Germain and Margueritte comprise the only two realistic characters in the town. There is Germain’s girlfriend, a beautiful young woman who appears to be all of 20 years old and unaccountably adores the town’s bigget loser. There are Margueritte’s heartless progeny, whose cold treatment of their mother even they seem to recognize is merely a plot device. And then there are the pub’s other patrons and employees, a quirky bunch that would be at home in one of the countless British comedies where a whole village bands together to do something wacky, except the only thing rallying these people is the desire to be mean to Germain.
The movie tips over the edge, irretrievably so for me, with a late plot twist that is so sappy and manipulative that it either came from a place of overwhelming laziness or from a deep well of cynicism. It jarringly clashes with everything we’ve seen so far and, when it becomes clear that the film intends to follow through with it and even make it an integral part of the last act, all hope and good will is lost.
Which is too bad because, even at its most trite, My Afternoons with Margueritte features two great performances. Depardieu and Casadesus are never less than magnetic and it sometimes seems that they knew the story they were telling better even than the writers and the director. They’re telling a story about intellect and compassion and about the fact that there is a balance to be struck between them. And they very nearly pull the whole thing off on their own.