Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'My Afternoons With Margueritte' review:

Watching 'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is comparable to taking a good hour and half long look at the film's warm and sickly sweet poster. On it is a park bench upon which sits an affable and rotund Gérard Depardieu alongside a frail and kindly looking old lady, Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus). The colours are sunny and vivid and the image is comforting and non-threatening. Nothing that happens in the film does anything deviate from this saccharin poster image. Certainly we are shown Depardieu's Germain having a turbulent relationship with his seemingly indifferent mother. There are backflashes to his torrid time in school, belittled by his teachers for his illiteracy. We also witness how Germain is likewise belittled by his friends at the local bistro. Yet the bulk of this film is self-consciously heartwarming, relaxed and "feel good". Really Germain's troubles only exist to give the character a starting point from which to launch into a palatable journey of friendship and self-discovery.

The plot concerns a chance meeting, as one afternoon the fifty-something Germain happens upon the ninety-five year-old Margueritte in the local park whilst going to count the pigeons, whom he has named - so familiar is he with their various quirks and personalities. At this point we have already seen that he is slightly tactless and dim-witted, but the scene with the pigeons tells us that whilst Germain is an oaf, he is at least a well-meaning and good-natured one. Margueritte, it happens, also enjoys the company of this particular bunch of pigeons and a friendship is born. Soon Margueritte is reading French literary classics to Germain and an interest in literacy is ignited by the benevolent old dear. The film is directed by the veteran French director Jean Becker (and is rumoured to be his last) and is adapted from a beloved French novel by Marie-Sabine Roger (Tete en Friche).

Strangely, due to some sexual references and Germain's crudity, this gentle film about a quest for literacy has received a '15' rating from the BBFC. To put that in perspective, that's the same rating as was awarded to 'Kick-Ass' (where a 12 year-old girl says "cunt" before dismembering a roomful of ethnic and gender stereotypes) and 'The Expendables' (a bloody film with a higher body count than many small wars). By contrast 'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is a film where hopping from word to word in a French dictionary is described as "an adventure" (I'm not making this up) as the characters share the occasional baguette during reliably good weather.

The film takes place in a broad (and very French) fantasy world, where the supporting characters are colourful eccentrics and where Germain can repeatedly deface a war memorial (by adding his own name in pen) without receiving anything more than a half-hearted rebuke. It is also a reality where Depardieu's obese, illiterate character (who lives in his mother's front garden in a trailer) has somehow attracted the love of a beautiful young women who wants to bear his children. The characters are functionary and cartoon-like, with Margueritte an idealised figure about whom we learn almost nothing. Ever smiling, Margueritte speaks in banal pleasantries and seemingly exists only as an advocate for the pleasures of reading. She is "nice" - with all the boringness that that word conveys.

Perhaps you could find something in her dependence on imagined literary worlds that suggests a silent sadness at her own lonely (and childless) existence - especially as her surviving relatives are depicted as basically uncaring. But Casadesus' smile never lets up as Margueritte is portrayed as unfailingly upbeat. Depardieu is a charismatic presence who does well to elevate his character to the point where he is almost interesting, but the film conspires against him to nullify this budding spark of genuine feeling. Despite all this, I found it impossible to dislike 'My Afternoons With Margueritte', just like it's impossible to take an active dislike towards those tartan coloured biscuit tins that you find in the stale and faintly depressing house of an elderly relative - except without the same sense of obligation. I needn't have visited Germain and Margueritte and next time I'll make my excuses.

'My Afternoons With Margueritte' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now at all Picturehouse cinemas and many others nationwide.

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