One of the special pleasures of the Island’s several film series is the way they bring the audience obscure but usually deeply satisfying movies. “My Afternoons with Margueritte,” which will close Chilmark’s Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) summer series on Wednesday, Aug. 31, is a little gem sailing under the radar of most American critics and audiences.
From start to finish, this poignant comedy will charm all but the most hard-hearted filmgoers. Germain Chazes, played with sublime finesse by Gérard Depardieu, is an oafish handyman with a heart of gold. Life has not treated Germain particularly well. His mother (Claire Maurier) has abused her son emotionally since childhood. So do some of his friends, like Jojo le Cook (Jean-Francois Stevenin), and Landremont (Patrick Bouchitey).
Although vigorous and warmhearted, Germain is a lonely, sad man who names each of the pigeons he feeds in the park. One day his park bench is shared by a gracious little old lady, named Margueritte. The two strike up a friendship that inspires the semi-literate Germain to improve his reading skills. At first, Margueritte reads to him from books like Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (“The Plague”).
Then she confesses to her newfound friend that she has macular degeneration and will soon go blind. On top of that misfortune, she can no longer afford her nursing home room, and her relatives will not help out.
Based on the novel “La Tete on Friche” (literally, if awkwardly, translatable as “The Unseeded Head”) by Marie-Sabine Roger, “My Afternoons with Margueritte” captures the lives of these two simple, unassuming people living in a small town north of Bordeaux, France, in exquisite detail.
Flashbacks and imagined scenes enrich the narration, along with a visual subtlety that is magical. M. Depardieu is a large, bearish man, while his friend Margueritte is a birdlike wisp. The visual contrast reinforces how the two complement each other.
Several of the most marvelous scenes include one of Germain swooping up a bar friend into a dance to keep him from humiliating the lovesick owner of the establishment. Another has Margueritte warning the clownishly overweight Germain not to sit in a chair in her nursing home room. It would surely collapse if he did. M. Depardieu is the master of such delicate, comic moments.
The dialogue, which emphasizes how Margueritte inspires Germain through her love of books, often rises almost to the level of poetry. When he protests that she should find medical aid for her failing vision, she tells Germain, ‘My sight is dying. You don’t operate on death.’”
This reviewer is not familiar with Jean Becker, who directed and helped write the screenplay for “My Afternoons with Margueritte.” He comes from a family of filmmakers, though, and he has clearly mastered the art of cinematography with quintessentially French sophistication. Could anyone but a French director bring so much humanity to a story like this one? I wonder.
Cinema Circus, the popular children’s component of MVFF, will finish the season with a group of shorts titled “Hanging by a Thread.”
“Hanging by a Thread” at Cinema Circus, 5 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 31, Chilmark Community Center. $10; $5 for MVFF members. For more information, see tmvff.org.
“My Afternoons with Margueritte,” 8 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 31, Chilmark Community Center. $14; $7 for MVFF members.
Brooks Robards, of Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a frequent contributor to The Times.