There is just one word for Jean Baker and Jean-Loup Dabadie’s new film "My Afternoons with Margueritte," and that’s delicious. In this one Gerard Depardieu is a big soft chocolate mousse and his costar, 97-year-old Gisele Casadesus, is a lean, crunchy baguette.
The two unlikely companions meet on a park bench, where they soon discover that they share an affection for the local pigeons. She counts them; he names them.
Casadesus, as Margueritte, is a scholar who has traveled the world and now spends her days joyfully reading. Depardieu, as Germain, is a sweet middle-aged vegetable farmer, uneducated and a bit oafish. He has spent his life being the butt of his friends’ jokes and taunts, and he accepts their teasing with gentle good humor.
In occasional flashbacks you see him as a schoolboy, taunted by his teacher for his faltering reading skills. You see him taunted as well by his termagant of a mother, who has remained consistent in her derision and rebukes to the present day.
Ironically, this pattern resembles Depardieu’s real-life childhood in some respects. As a boy he was told by his mother that she had tried to abort him, and he spent most of his time avoiding school (and her, one would guess), finally leaving both at the age of 13. As Depardieu readily admits, Germain is “just like what I was… Just like him, I observed everything; I watched what was going on. So he’s somebody I know very well.”
Like his character, Germain, Depardieu lives “in the present, because what you experience is there right away … All that stamps things into your memory, like pain, emotions, sounds, colors and smells are (the things) that I nourish myself with.”
In the film, Germain immediately responds to the kindly old woman in the park and begins to ask her about the book she’s reading. Delighted, she reads a few passages aloud (from Camus, who is difficult to understand even if you’re literate) and patiently discusses them with him. He not only “gets” it, but becomes fascinated with both Margueritte and her books.
And so they continue to meet and she continues to read to him until he begins to realize that he can change his own persona and his way of “being” in the world, and he starts to educate himself. His frustrations as he scours a dictionary provide a humorous sidebar: “You can’t look up a word if you don’t know how to spell it!” he grumbles to his pretty young girlfriend, Annette (Sophie Guillemin).
Even his attitudes begin to change. When his coarse companions ask if he is “still screwing” Annette, he responds with dignity, “We don’t screw any more. We make love.”
"My Afternoons with Margueritte" is a story about friendship and transformation and it is a joy to watch. Taken from a novel by Marie-Sabine Roger, the film resonates with soft French sunlight and the slow pace of village life. And the delightful participation of an ensemble of actors who couldn’t be more perfectly cast.
"My Afternoons with Margueritte" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 16. In Los Angeles its first performances will be at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles.