A scene from "My Afternoons with Margueritte." (Cohen Media Group )
It takes a special skill to make a film feel as soft and light as a summer breeze, and yet that is what French director Jean Becker accomplishes with "My Afternoons With Margueritte," a glimpse into the everyday of two ordinary lives.
This little gem is all about the nature of chance encounters and how they can change us in unexpected ways. The one on which this story hangs begins on a park bench in a small village in the French countryside. It is a place patina-ed by the years, as are the two main characters, a fragile bird-thin woman named Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus) and a giant lump of a working man, Germain (Gerard Depardieu).
For both, their encounters in the park become a respite from the troubles of their lives. She's about to be moved from the comfort of the residential facility where she's been living, her family no longer willing to foot the bill. He's locked in a lifelong struggle with the profound insecurity that comes from a mother who always pegs him the fool.
They are an unlikely pair. The refined and erudite Margueritte is portrayed with a simple grace by Casadesus, who was 95 when the film was shot. An oversized Depardieu is the coarse and little educated Germain, who must hint at a stirring intellect inside that lumbering bulk. Yet their connection is immediate and the two actors are playful with each other almost from the beginning, as Germain explains the names he's given each of the pigeons pecking at their feet and Margueritte begins to read to him from her book.
Solace comes from sharing ideas and emotions — Margueritte giving Germain the courage to not only read, but also to think, and Germain taking the time to become her friend. The script, which the director co-wrote with Jean-Loup Dabadie and is adapted from the Marie-Sabine Roger novel, creates a kind of effortless intimacy from the start. It truly does feel like we've stumbled into these lives in much the same way Germain first happened upon Margueritte in the park.
Though the film is small, tightly focused on its two main characters, there are big themes underpinning the narrative. The dialogue ranges from gentleness in the conversations between the aging woman and the still maturing man, to callousness in the way their families and the world are dismissive of their plights.
Nearly every shot underscores the personal nature of things. You feel the presence of either Margueritte or Germain or both in every frame, without the film ever feeling overly stuffed or hurried.
Becker, working with director of photography Arthur Cloquet, plays with light to great effect as well. In the park it is usually sun-dappled, shifting as we follow Germain into the darker corners of his life. The pub, where he begins to try out some of his newfound observations on old pals, has a warmth in its shadows; in his mother's house the light is harsh even late at night, and the air is filled with the sound of her invective.
As is so often the case with advancing age and increasing enlightenment, Margueritte's life unravels just as Germain's is coming together, with a few surprises along the way. Not too many, but it doesn't matter much, for the film is a reminder of the pleasure to be found in simple things — reading a book, sitting on a park bench with a friend, spending an afternoon with Margueritte.