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My Afternoons with Margueritte

Dir: Jean Becker

Rating: 2.9/5.0

Cohen Media Group

82 Minutes

The closing words of My Afternoons with Margueritte emphasize that it is, despite the complete lack of romance between the two main characters, indeed a love story. Given that, it’s probably appropriate that the beginning of the film follows one of the creakiest conventions of the genre and conspires to make certain that people who develop an unyielding affection for one another wind up meeting in a cute way. It’s not a nutty mix-up or anything like that. Instead, befitting the gentle tone of the film, Germain (Gérard Depardieu) meets Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) while both of them separately tally up a flock of pigeons in the park. Germain knows the birds well; he has given them all names suited to the personalities he observes, a measure of the supportive structure he yearns for but can’t quite find elsewhere in his life.

Germain is an older man, working odd jobs around town, but he remains haunted by the verbal abuse that was heaped on him when he was a boy, a constantly bullying that is portrayed in flashbacks. Margueritte is in her nineties and treats Germain with a level of kindness and respect that he’s unaccustomed to. The pair bond quickly, regularly meeting at the same park bench to share good conversation. Eventually, Margueritte begins reading novels to the undereducated Germain, introducing him to the pleasure of literature that’s previously lain outside his meager capabilities.

When the film sticks with those two, it’s a solid – if unremarkable – character study. There’s an appealing tenderness to their interaction that is largely attributable to the performers occupying the roles. Depardieu may suddenly be better known for his unique approach to personal relief while aboard airliners (tabloid fodder that has an unfortunate coincidental parallel in the film when a drunkard who’s being looked after by his friends winds up pissing himself in a doorway), but he remains a deft actor. While his build is more bearish than ever, some of the fire and potency of his earlier performances has been replaced by an easygoing emotional gracefulness that suits the character very well. There aren’t many other actors who could carry a scene centered entirely on a verbal squabble with a dictionary, but Depardieu manages to make it both insightful and charming. Casadesus manages a fine duet with him, meeting his eager fumbles with a warm, twinkly understanding.

Similar title notwithstanding, the film doesn’t really want to be a rejiggered version of My Dinner with Andre and so it fills the plot with a lot of extraneous business. Germain hangs out with a group of friends at a small café, and most of those scenes play like clips extracted from some wan French sitcom with clumsy comedy built around Germain’s awkwardness in communicating. There’s also an attempt to build some high drama into the last act that plays like tired obligation instead of something that emerged naturally. Director Jean Becker worked with Jean-Loup Dabadie to adapt Marie-Sabine Roger’s novel, and while I can’t honestly trace where they are or aren’t remaining true to the original work, an awful lot of what’s onscreen seems like drab filler invented to give a quiet story a few jolts of energy.

Whether the bits that incorporate characters other than Germain and Margueritte are fresh inventions or carry-overs from the book doesn’t really matter. Whatever the source, they get in the way of what works in the film. There’s a humble wisdom in the scenes in the park as the main characters consider their respective personal shortcomings and compensatory pleasures. These are the moments when My Afternoons with Margueritte is satisfyingly about believable, interesting people rather than stuff that sadly smacks of movie artifice.

by Dan Seeger

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