An extremely mild if humanist portrait of a hulking, semiliterate man and his warm relationship with a 95-year-old widow he meets in a park, My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche, or "The Uncultivated Mind," 2010) plays like a Lifetime Channel TV-movie. The English title even recalls Tuesdays with Morrie, the book and later TV-movie that starred Jack Lemmon in one of his last roles.
Presumably the presence of star Gérard Depardieu bumped this up to theatrical feature status. Nevertheless, it's cut from the same cloth as movies like The Bucket List (2010), if not nearly as bad as that film, although My Afternoons with Margueritte is unintentionally funny at times.
A Cohen Media Group/New Video release, the Blu-ray is up to contemporary standards in terms of picture and sound. Extras include what's billed as a trailer (though it may not be in the strictest sense) and a booklet of sorts.
One thing working in the film's favor is its brevity. It runs just 83 minutes dripping wet and, minus the end titles, is really closer to 77 minutes. Slight though it is, its length is appropriate and one never gets bored.
The story is set in a small French town where locals regard Germain (Depardieu) as something like the jovial village idiot. Dressed in coveralls and finding day-jobs as a handyman, gardener, and construction worker, he spends his free time at a rowdy local wine bar or in his trailer with his much younger lover, bus driver Annette (Sophie Guillemin). Conversely, he spends as little time as possible with his grotesque aged mother (Claire Maurier), an unpleasant woman with advancing Alzheimer's disease.
Germain is bitter about his past, where his elementary school teachers, his mother and her abusive lover all belittled and humiliated young Germain mercilessly. (She even refers to him not by name but as "It.") Despite this, he has a reputation around town as a warm and friendly person.
Eating lunch in the park with the pigeons he meets 95-year-old Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus, who really was 95 at the time this was made; she's made at least five movies since). They begin chatting and soon they're whiling away the hours with her reading books to him, beginning with Camus's The Plague. Later, he sits entranced while she reads him poetry and Luis Sepúlveda's The Old Man Who Read Love Stories and the like.
Germain's pals back at the pub begin chiding him when he begins applying what he's learning during their conversations. Margueritte gives him a dictionary as a gift, but in an amusing scene becomes frustrated when he can't find most of the words he wants to look up, and misreads those he can find. Annette becomes jealous when she spots Germain with some flowers intended for his aged companion, and there's the issue of Margueritte's expensive assisted living facility, which her relatives are loathe to keep paying for.
Slight but not unpleasant, My Afternoons with Margueritte was based on a book by Marie-Sabine Roger, likely with a younger man in mind for Germain than enormously fat 62-year-old Depardieu. Packaging describes Germain as a man in his fifties, and one flashback scene featuring a 12-year-old Germain with an 18-inch color TV would seem to make him about 50 in 2010.
In any case, while one might accept the notion of an attractive young woman in her early thirties drawn to a semi-literate day laborer living in a trailer if he were extraordinarily kind and gentle, add to that a 30-year age difference and a couple hundred pounds and credibility is stretched past all reasonable limits.
Ordinarily I'd refrain from discussing an actor's weight ("Judge not...") but the movie constantly draws attention to Depardieu's size. There's a sex scene where Germain finishes "on top" and one can't help but wonder how Annette isn't squashed like a pancake. The face is Depardieu's but with the coveralls especially the body is Oliver Hardy's at his fattest, circa Atoll K (1950). As in that film with Hardy, Depardieu occasionally reads his lines sweaty and out of breath. His nonagenarian co-star is positively robust by comparison.
Despite everything Depardieu delivers a likeable, nuanced performance while Casadesus, whose movie career dates back to at least 1934 but who only became nationally famous late in life, avoids the clichés of such roles, coming off as intelligent and assertive and not merely cute and helpless.
Jean Becker, son of director Jacques, is apparently known in France for such films, though I've only seen this one so far. Neither bad nor particularly good, I'm still glad to have experienced it.
Video & Audio
My Afternoons with Margueritte is a Region A disc up to contemporary video/audio standards. The 2.35:1 image is bright and essentially flawless with good detail, color, and contrast, while the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (also available in 2.0 format) is strong and clear, though neither is exactly in danger of being overtaxed, either. The optional English subtitles appear solely within the frame.
The only extras include what's billed as a trailer but which may be a home video promo instead; at least it played that way to me. There's a booklet with a couple of good stills and a more complete cast and crew list.
Insubstantial but okay as entertainment with its heart in the right place, My Afternoons with Margueritte is Recommended, if mildly so.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.