This French treat about a good-hearted simpleton and the kindly 95-year-old book lover he befriends is sentimental without being maudlin, even when the inevitable subject of mortality arises. Sometimes the story is played so broadly it resembles a live-action version of a tale that could have worked equally well as an animated modern-day fable, but that’s not a bad thing.
Gérard Depardieu is the bearish and shaggy-haired Germain, a village not-quite idiot who has a habit of adding his name to a local war memorial’s list of fallen heroes. A day laborer and small-plot farmer, he is mocked as a country bumpkin even by his alleged friends.
Germain lives in a trailer parked in front of the house where his abusive and bitter mother (Claire Maurier) spends her days drifting into dementia. The 60-ish Germain’s girlfriend Annette (Sophie Guillemin) is a bus driver half his age, which makes no more sense than similar mai-décembre pairings in Woody Allen movies. But hey, it’s France.
A chance meeting on a park bench with the smart and sweetly optimistic Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) inspires Germain to overcome a lifelong sense of intellectual inadequacy instilled in childhood by his belittling mother and a cruelly sarcastic schoolteacher. He faces struggles along the way, such as difficulties with using a dictionary, but haltingly comes to acknowledge a genuine appreciation for the written word. Before long he is enjoying Camus’ The Plague while vividly imagining swarms of rampaging rats. That’s entertainment!
The approval-seeking Germain and the patiently encouraging Margueritte are a joy to watch in their scenes together, which are believably tentative, tender and sometimes touching. Casadesus, who actually was 95 when My Afternoons With Margueritte was filmed, first appeared onscreen in 1934’s L’Aventurier — and she has made three more movies since this one.
In flashback scenes, Anne Le Guernec is both sexy and shrewish as the younger version of Germain’s un-maternal mother, a spitfire who is not above sticking a pitchfork in an abusive boyfriend’s leg. Another standout supporting character is the smugly superior but slightly suicidal mechanic Landremont (Patrick Bouchitey), whom Germain seeks to impress with his limited grasp of literature.
There’s also a bittersweet subplot about a middle-aged barmaid’s love for a handsome Algerian waiter who prefers a younger and prettier customer. Germain cluelessly but hilariously tries to boost the barmaid’s spirits by reassuring her that “the best stew comes from old pots.”
Trouble arises when Margueritte’s nephew and niece arrive from Belgium with plans to uproot and transplant their elderly aunt elsewhere, an occasion that leads Germain to discover details he never knew about Margueritte’s personal history.
Director Jean Becker cowrote the screenplay with Jean-Loup Dabadie based on the Marie-Sabine Roger novel La t?te en friche, which could loosely be translated as An Uncultivated Mind. The easygoing but pleasantly unpredictable story includes scenes that range from amusingly absurd to tragically poignant, yet never feels overly silly or oppressively heavy.
If it’s possible for a movie to leave audiences with both a tear in the eye and a satisfied smile, My Afternoons With Margueritte may be the one.