Jean Becker’s new movie, La Tête en Friche (based on Marie-Sabine Roger’s book of the same name), is in so many ways hopelessly outdated. It portrays village life as it was represented on film in the 1930s and 1940s: gentle, undemanding and with the lesser roles of the villagers overacted with eye-rolling and thigh-slapping joviality.
Yet, thanks to the central roles of the village idiot Germain and 95-year-old Margueritte (yes, spelled with two ts), played by Gérard Depardieu and Gisèle Casadesus respectively, La Tête en Friche (My Afternoons with Margueritte) manages a charm and intensity that just manage to avoid most clichés of rural French life. The story revolves around their meeting in a park and the unlikely friendship that ensues, as the semi-literate Germain is read to by the erudite Margueritte before he learns to read to her when her eyesight begins to fail.
Reading books is never easy to dramatize effectively, but Becker displays a sure touch in depicting Germain’s imagination as he listens to the older woman: the rabble of rats he envisages as he listens to Albert Camus’s The Plague is particularly vivid. Flashbacks to Germain’s childhood inform us about the bullying he suffered both at school and at home. All the other actors in supporting roles (not least a ludicrously over-the-top Claire Maurier as Germain’s mother) might usefully have picked up a few tips from the understated dignity with which Florian Yven plays Germain as a child.
Depardieu proves yet again what a versatile and subtle actor he is, making Germain utterly believable, perhaps most poignantly so when he weeps over the dead body of a mother who showed him so little love when she was alive. Although it seems unlikely that Germain would have such a buxom young girlfriend as Annette (played by Sophie Guillemin, an actress who has been scandalously underused since her movie debut in Cedric Kahn’s L’Ennui in 1998), this is the fault of the director. As for Gisèle Casadesus (herself now 96), she brings an energy to the screen that belies her age.
Reader Andrew Fildes writes: “Pons is not exactly a village, and I have spent some time in smaller communities in Charente-Maritime over the last 50 years. The semi-rural lifestyle depicted here is not that of the 30’s-40’s, but very much of the present. I have seen these people in the bars and on the farms and lanes even recently. Perhaps the only jarring note is that I did not hear real Charentais voices – but that may have been too incomprehensible for the audience. It is quite impenetrable.
“Yes, it seems unlikely that the girlfriend would be a Guillemin type, but unlikely alliances do occur. As a teacher of long experience, the performance of Yven as the child did not seem to display ‘understated dignity’ to me. The word ‘bovine’ came to mind.
“I think that we forget that there are pockets that time forgets. Yes, the scene shown in this film is not modern, but it does still exist, and we see the intrusion of modern life frequently, such as in the family in the park or the horror of the Flemish nursing home. People still live and behave in this way. And if I want to see eye-rolling and thigh slapping joviality, I may go down now (and I think I will) to my local bar in a similar community here in Australia and see very similar people behave in a similar way. The chef is a mad Lithuanian, the waitress a university student, and there will be the usual crowd of accountants, artists and artisans carrying on in much the same way.
“These places exist – seek them out.
“The film has enormous charm and does seek to connect with something lost – simple goodwill perhaps.”