Best viewed with a baguette and a Bordeaux, and while wearing a beret, vet helmer Jean Becker’s “My Afternoons With Marguerite” is French feel-good filmmaking to the max. Yet a heaping pile of cliches doesn’t prevent this touchingly simplistic tale — about a fiftysomething knucklehead who encounters the titular senior on a park bench and learns some valuable lessons about life and literature — from exuding a strong and universal emotional appeal, backed by Gerard Depardieu’s finely tuned perf as a dungaree-wearing ogre with a heart. Though Becker’s work rarely travels outside Francophone markets, “Marguerite” has offshore potential as a matinee item.
As in his recent pics, “Strange Gardens” and “Love Me No More,” writer-director Becker offers up a picturesque — to the point of postcard-esque — image of rural France that’s tainted by darker psychological issues and the evil that men, or in this case Mommy, can do.
Adapted from a novel by the helmer and Jean-Loup Dabadie (a frequent collaborator of the late Claude Sautet), pic follows the travails of kindhearted lug Germain (Depardieu), who’s been so traumatized by his mother (Claire Maurier) that, as foretold via a series of Dickensian flashbacks, he’s never amounted to much in life. But when Germain meets retiree Marguerite (Gisele Casadesus, “Palais royal”) on a park bench, she begins to teach him about the wonders of French literature, reading aloud from the works of Camus and Romain Gary, and imparting to him the gift of knowledge, along with a much-needed boost of self-confidence.
Though this is pure Lifetime network fodder, there’s still something innately moving, and ultimately inspiring, about watching a man, with the help of a good book, climb out of the hole of ignorance and malice he was raised in. Only an actor as seasoned and talented as Depardieu could make some of the pic’s more cringe-worthy scenes (such as a quasi-surreal one in which, for several long minutes, Germain reads passages from the dictionary to his cat) play out rather well, and he’s abetted by 96-year old Casadesus’ smart performance.
Like much of Becker’s other work, the pic is directed in an airy, highly classical manner, showcasing the strong performances rather than any sort of cinematic bravura. Widescreen lensing by Arthur Cloquet is bare-bones and efficient, while things are generally well paced, aside from a rushed ending that comes fairly close to erasing the virtues of all that preceded it.
French-language title refers to an uncultured individual, and in agricultural terms, “en friche” can mean an uncultivated plot of land — a reference to a simple mind, like Germain’s, that’s ripe for planting.