The friendship between a quasi-illiterate handyman and an elderly woman in "My Afternoons with Margueritte" is as delicately detailed as every other element in the movie is heavy handed.
The 2011 French drama, out this week on Blu-ray, offers a beautiful example of two lost souls connecting despite a staggering age difference. In between, we suffer through hokey subplots, cartoonish characters and an ending set up so deliberately the screenwriter's scribblings can almost be seen like a closed captioned message.
Gerard Depardieu stars as Germain, a middle-aged man living from one part-time gig to the next. He can barely read, and his bar buddies constantly mock his lack of brain power. He somehow has a beautiful, young girlfriend willing to overlook his crusty exterior.
Germain meets Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) at a local park one day. The pair bond over pigeon counting and, later, their affection for books. They both could stand some friendly companionship. Germain's friends are alternately teasing him or disturbing him at odd hours to keep the peace. Her nephew begrudgingly pays her way at an upscale retirement village nearby, and she appears to have no other family relationships to fall back on.
They keep meeting on the same park bench, their good-natured banter deepening with every encounter. They couldn't look any less alike physically. She is strong but frail, while his bulk makes him look both clumsy and ravenous at all times.
The people in Germain's life start to notice a change in the husky handyman, while his girlfriend wonders just who the other woman in his life is.
"My Afternoons with Margueritte" will make you want to pick up the nearest book and then share it with a friend after poring over every page. The main characters bond over literature, which makes some of the dialogue all the more painful to process. It's a blessing whenever the main characters find themselves on that humble bench, because the situations away from that setting detract from everything that makes these "Afternoons" so memorable.
Germain's limited mental abilities are played in true Hollywood style, even if this is a French production. He's alternately brilliant and bland, able to concoct gorgeous metaphors but clueless in some social situations.
Director Jean Becker's use of flashbacks is inorganic at best, even if they help flesh out Germain's destructive childhood. Becker's oafish approach to the secondary characters could be a ploy to enhance the Germain/Margueritte pairing, but that's hardly a good enough argument to squander so much of the narrative.
"My Afternoons with Margueritte" focuses on two characters who could be excused for losing themselves in self pity. Margueritte is very old, and her physical limitations are starting to make simple activities a chore. And Germain's bustling social life can't hide the fact that his career - and brain power - will forever be limited.
The fact that both characters embrace life - and each other - makes "Margueritte" a gorgeous if uneven odd to our collective imperfections.