I have a theory about French film. Here it is: somewhere in another reality, a place exists that normal people can’t get to. Let’s call it Mont Croissant. It looks exactly like a French provincial town and is populated exclusively by off-duty characters from French cinema. In this town, no conflict lasts more than a few minutes, casual folksiness prevails and everything always turns out all right because here, life is simple. Residents constantly spout twee one-liners, jokes that help bring them together across the boundaries of age and gender. It’s a beautiful retreat for those beloved extra-frenchy characters to inhabit when they are not starring in Amelie or Paris Je’Taime.
Now, consider My Afternoons with Margueritte:
Germain Chazes (Gerard Depardieu) is a forty-something gentle giant who has spent his whole life being teased for his slow wits and bumbling manner. Germain is content to live out his alleged idiocy in a poky caravan in the garden of his mad and embittered mother. He grows vegetables and works as a labourer to satisfy his humble lifestyle and is in a relationship with wide-eyed beauty Annette. Spare time is spent with the blokes at the local bar (run by a wise but unlucky-in-love hostess), who make fun of him whilst pursuing young women and sipping tiny glasses of muscat. Germain is a fool, but he is happy. Then one day he encounters Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus) sitting in the park, an elderly woman of grace and generosity for whom blindness is looming. The pair form a bond as Margueritte introduces Germain to the joys of literature. Their meetings have a curative effect on Germain’s humiliations at the pub, but soon transform him even more deeply. Now Germain is slightly less of a fool, but he is happy.
Whilst director Lois Becker never says so, My Afternoons with Margueritte is set in Mont Croissant. The evidence for this is plentiful: there is little plot, the story has no weight or insight, there is no real sense of time or place and faces familiar from other loved French pieces pop up. References to the quintessentially French are made: baguettes and Camus are discussed, Depardieu even attempts a Gainsbourg-style poem-set-to-music in the credits (with grotesque results). The characters in My Afternoons with Margueritte are formulaic; we’ve seen them before in films by Jean Pierre Jeunet and in Francophile pieces like Chocolat, only in more depth. This is because in Mont Croissant, the residents are only archetypal shadows of characters in other films. My Afternoons with Margueritte, in my mind, is a snapshot-of-life film about a town that represents the notion of French cinema as seen in the minds of English-speakers.
If nothing else, this film is about simplicity. It’s very short – this is the first 80 minute film I can ever remember seeing that wasn’t for kids. The characters are light, the staging pretty. Countless opportunities for the script to unpack darker or more complicated areas are missed, in particular Germain’s relationship with Annette and his mother complex.
Whilst admirably extolling the virtues of reading and friendship, My Afternoons with Margueritte leaves you with little more than a good mood. Its humour was the most enjoyable aspect, yet the jokes were forgettable. It’s too short to get boring and too sincere to be annoying, and most of all, too funny to warrant total disappointment. However if it were any funnier, shorter or sincere it would be insipid.