It's the story of one of those improbable encounters that can change the course of one's life: the encounter, in a small public garden, between Germain (Gérard Depardieu), fifty and barely literate, and Marguerite (Gisèle Casadesus), a little old lady passionate about reading. Forty years and 220 pounds separate them. One day, purely by chance, Germain sits down beside Marguerite. She'll go on to read aloud extracts from novels and thereby allow him to discover the magic of books, from which Germain imagined he was excluded for life.
This light French drama has one of those perfectly rounded morals, the kind my English teachers used to love. That’s probably because it appears as profound and deep and isn’t at all hard to explain. The lesson of My Afternoons with Margueritte is that words have the power to transform a life. It tells us, in essence, that art works. It’s a movie that’s full of hope. It’s also a movie that’s told in a way that’s pretty crude and obvious. Some movies are designed to creep up on an audience. Here director Jean Becker wants to grab for the heart straight away. Set in a tiny town in a lovely rural province of France, even the sunlight seems tuned to a sweet glow. Still, that sort of insistence on emotional immediacy is part of the movie’s charm.
Right from the start Becker sets up his hero Germain (Gerard Depardieu) as the village idiot. A sort of local handyman, the first scene has him stiffed out of some money. In overalls and a bad haircut, Germain trundles away in frustration and hurt from the argument looking like a gigantic toddler. There’s something very timid about him, a kind of sensitivity that makes him vulnerable and very sad. A regular at the local inn, Germain has a habit of doing and saying the wrong thing, which makes him a constant target for ridicule.
One day while he’s counting pigeon’s in the park Germain meets a 95 year-old woman, called Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus). It takes no time for her to see that Germain is a barely-literate man-child. At one point in the story Margueritte gives Germain a dictionary telling him: 'Using a dictionary is like travelling, from one word to the next"¦ you stop and dream." She reads him aloud extracts from Camus and Roman Gary. Germain feels the wisdom of the words and Margueritte is touched.
This is the kind of yarn where part of its pleasure is anticipating where it’s going; it has a sympathy for its characters that’s gripping. We want things to turn out all right. Occasionally, though, Becker sends the film off into a moment that’s weirder and more memorable than most of the film’s melodrama. For instance, there’s a bit where Germain, alone in his caravan at night, reads aloud the dictionary to his cat, and ponders how so many words can be understood in so many different ways. This moment could be cute in a sickly way but it isn’t. It says more about the special kind of loneliness that Germain has to endure than the rather cartoon-like flashbacks that are inserted throughout the narrative that 'explain’ his rough childhood. We get a backstory of poverty – both emotional and material. We learn that his mother (Claire Maurier) was cruel (and perhaps mad) and this shattered his confidence and probably left him with a learning disorder. Meanwhile, his school days are depicted as occasions for humiliation and defeat.
Based on the novel by Marine-Sabine Roger and adapted by Becker and Jean-Loup Dabadie, the film maps a neat scheme of cause-and-effect psychology. Germain’s mother is still alive in the modern parts of the story and she is clearly suffering from dementia. Margueritte thus becomes a sort of surrogate mother for Germain; a nurturing figure that loves and cares for him without qualification. Margueritte’s friendship complicates things with Germain’s beautiful and much younger girlfriend Annette (played by popular French actor Sophie Guillemin).
Some critics are mystified by the way Annette is used in the plot; why does Germain need a friend, they complain, if he’s got a woman, and a devoted one at that? But Becker and co. manage to negotiate this point in a way that’s quite insightful (and in terms of storytelling it’s the best thing in the film). Early on in the narrative we are made to understand that Germain sees himself as the junior partner in his relationship with Annette. It’s a relationship defined by tolerance and acceptance; Annette doesn’t know of Germain’s past. Margueritte, in a sense, provides Germain the courage to create a relationship that is equal and emotionally honest.
Short and sweet, My Afternoons with Margueritte is a cosy movie experience. Its story comes out of all sorts of pain and misery and yet, the dominant mood is optimistic. It’s got a fable-like, fairytale ambience that’s just this side of corny, but that kind of hope is very seductive.