You already know what My Afternoons with Magueritte (La Tête en Friche) will be like. It is excellently made, played with charm, and shot with lightness and light in mind. If you are planning on watching it, then you will certainly enjoy it.
La Tête en Friche is a comedy about the relationship between a semi-literate man and a well-read much older woman. A story about friendship and reading, it is peppered with dark literary references read aloud (Albert Camus, Franz Kafka etc) and the bitting undercurrent of Germain’s (Gérard Depardieu) relationship with his mother (Claire Maurier), an unloving figure falling into madness.
The film is surprising though. If you had seen the poster you would never imagine that the line, “You always come crying to your mother’s grave, howling like an abandoned dog” would have a prominent place in it. It is a testament to director Jean Becker’s mastery of style, that a film so influenced by literary portrayals of darkness remains a light and positive movie. I haven’t read the original novel by Marie-Sabine Roger but I would be very interested to see how much the tone of the book differs from the film. Here, the horror of the words spoken is washed away by the playfulness of the delivery and the bright sun light, in which the majority of the film is shot.
The film is intended as a homage to literature but, in the way it creates its world and characters, it almost unintentionally becomes a reprimand for intellectuals. To begin with Germain, the village simpleton, is honest and naturally poetic. This naivety is utterly beguiling and it is his unique approach to life that makes him such an engaging and heart-warming character.
Yet, after he meets Magueritte and is introduced to reading, Germain comes closer and closer to the affectations of the crossword-playing semi-villan of the piece; dropping references to the books of Camus and parroting back the things that he has learnt. The semi-literate Germain seemed gifted, his speech direct and sensual, by contrast, at the end of the film, you half-suspect that this talent will be replaced by quotations from ‘worthier’ writers. When his friends complain, ‘but we liked the old Germain’, you can’t help but secretly agree with them. And it is not just in the character of Germain that the tyranny of literature plays in the shadows. Magueritte is losing her sight. The thought of this appalls Germain because, ‘reading is her life. What will she do without her books?’. This lady who has so devoted herself to literature would be in a hell complete, devoid of others’ imaginations. Simple Germain would not be so terribly afflicted.
You can detect some differences of vision in this film, between the writer and the director. The film is played as a light comedy in a stereo-typical rural French town filled with perfectly evoked stock characters. The performances are wonderful but decidedly one-dimensional. You never quite believe in Germain’s lack of confidence. His mother is unremittingly horrible, and Magueritte permanently wholesome. But this isn’t to say that the is no dimension in the script. The lines are there, though never quite delivered with conviction.
The plot points too have the bleakness that we have come to associate with the American Indie scene of Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) or the partnership of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). Becker, however, chooses to keep his characters and events as motifs, never too close to reality. He never forgets that this is a fantasy, a resolutely happy comedy. There is no fault in this. Beauty here is ascendant and we willingly accept the pleasure of his vision.
There is only one point where I was bought dangerously close to disbelief and that was with regards to Annette (Sophie Guillemin) and Germain’s relationship. Annette is supposed to be the one person, other than Maguritte, who can see the specialness in Germain’s soul.
She is so beautiful, understanding and loving that, combined with the amiability of Depardieu’s Germain, she undermines the central premise that there is a deep unhappiness in Germain’s life. In fairness, this perfect relationship does relate to the repeated quotation about “howling at your mother’s grave”; a quote that, in context, is about an idea that even the most perfect woman cannot replace your mother. But the relationship is so underdeveloped, that Annette, despite a touching performance form Guillemin, becomes more a device to move the plot forward than a character in her own right.
All this may sound like deep criticism, it’s not. The scenes between the lovers may threaten to slip you out of the spell that the film weaves about you. The triumph of the film is that it is a spell that you do not wish to be broken.
• David saw the film at The Barn Cinema, Dartington, as part of an ongoing collaboraton with D+CFilm, where filmmakers review The Barn’s movies.