Thursday 11 November 2010

An education: "My Afternoons with Margueritte"

The sly little charmer My Afternoons with Margueritte arrives care of Jean Becker, the writer-director who - the lubricious One Deadly Summer and Elisa aside - would appear to have inherited the tradition of genteel humanism (what the New Wavers called the cinéma de papa) so prevalent in French cinema at the time of his father Jacques. His latest is surely made for matinee viewing, unfolding as it does to the leisurely rhythms of a sunny afternoon in the French provinces. It's here that two opposites happen to alight on the same park bench: Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) is an elderly ex-schoolmistress who - with time on her hands - spends her days tending to the pigeons, while Germain (Gérard Depardieu) is a plump bumpkin who - when not presiding over the regulars at the village bar or whittling away in his caravan - can be found defacing the local war memorial. After he warns her to keep a close eye on her handbag, an unexpected friendship begins to blossom, and there they continue to sit, these two childless strangers, the one in a delicate pink cardy, the other in dirty dungarees. Her erudition comes to complement his natural appetites, his curiosity; soon, he's hooked on Camus, devouring The Fall and finding that its existentialism works its way into his everyday conversations.

A simple, sedentary affair, you might be tempted to label it a Gallic Driving Miss Daisy - except the film itself is never quite as complacent as that makes out. The old dear is really, in this instance, just a catalyst; instead, the script by Becker and Jean-Loup Dabadie (adapting from a novel by Marie-Sabine Roger) comes to interrogate the Depardieu character's relationships with the other women in his life - his indifferent mother (Claire Maurier) and loving girlfriend (Sophie Guillemin) - and forces him to redefine himself, much as he does the words in his prized Petit Robert dictionary. The backdrop, admittedly, conforms to an exportable vision of la belle France: the bar, with its array of local characters and romantic subplots, is very Amélie, and we never seem to be that much more than ten metres from the nearest game of boules. Yet it's a cordial film, nudged out of its sporadic ruts by the obvious affection the two leads share for one another; there are many worse ways of spending an afternoon of your own.

My Afternoons with Margueritte opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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