There isn’t much to Jean Becker’s movie, but what there is, is charming. Based on a novel by Marie-Sabine Roger, “My Afternoons With Margueritte” is a slender tale about Germain (Gerard Depardieu, to whom that adjective certainly doesn’t apply), an untutored rustic whose attitude is altered by a chance meeting with an elderly lady on a park bench. Marguerite (Gisele Casadesus) engages him in conversation and in passing introduces him to a world of literature that, as flashbacks to his hellish schooldays show, he’s never felt comfortable with.
Germain, played with gruff effervescence by Depardieu in bib overalls, is no outcast—he’s a regular at the village bistro. But his friends there treat him like a lovable buffoon. And he lives in a trailer beside the house of his mother (Claire Maurier), an aging harridan who, as we see in further flashbacks, always treated him with undisguised contempt—and still does. It’s no wonder that Germain sees himself as a loser, even though he enjoys an amorous relationship with Annette (Sophie Guillemin), a pretty young bus driver (a coupling that accentuates the fact that he’s awfully old for the role, but he’s so genial that you’re willing to overlook it).
That romantic subplot, to be frank, seems less likely than the friendship he strikes up with Marguerite, which begins with their common interest in the pigeons in the square and then proceeds to small talk about their respective lives and interests. The chatty, self-possessed woman commiserates with him and shares her love of books with him by reading passages from Camus and Gary aloud. Germain, whose mental visualizations of the words Becker depicts for us, is entranced by the experience, and before long Marguerite has presented him with gifts—a well-worn copy of Camus’ “The Plague,” and a dictionary, which spur a newfound appreciation for language that his old buddies can’t understand.
The film ends with Germain a changed man, his transformation shown in the fact that he comes to terms with his mother’s hostility while reaching important decisions about both Margueritte and Annette. One might complain of the implausibility that grows as the various plot strands come together, but when dealing with a feel-good fable of this kind, it doesn’t pay to raise logical objections.
Becker moves “My Afternoons With Margueritte” forward cleanly and unpretentiously, but what really saves the picture from sliding into mere preciousness is the quality of the performances. Depardieu is doing a flamboyant theatrical turn, but it’s so ebulliently carried off that one hesitates to complain. (He even pulls off a potentially goofy scene in which Germain reads to his cat from the dictionary.) Casadesus, who recently appeared in “Sarah’s Key,” matches him point for point with a delightful turn as the prim, sympathetic Margueritte. And though Maurier comes on awfully strong, the remainder of the supporting cast add color and verve to the mix—including that cat, which comes close to stealing its big dictionary scene.
Shot straightforwardly but evocatively by Arthur Cloquet and edited nicely by Jacques Witta except for a tendency to rush toward the close, this is a film that will give you a warm, comfortable feeling. You won’t regret spending eighty minutes not only with Marguerite but with Germain, too.