24 November 2010

Jean Becker's La tête en friche (2010)

Back in June, on my way back from Champagne-Vigny to the Arvert peninsula in south-west France, I accidentally took a wrong turning and found myself entering the town of Pons in Charente-Maritime. As I'd never heard of Pons, I stupidly imagined it to be of no interest, and turned round toward Royan. What I'd missed seeing was what seems to be a lovely place, and it also happens to be the main settting for Jean Becker's La tête en friche, which goes under the ugly and inapproprate English title of My Afternoons with Margueritte (sic) , which Philip French in The Observer accurately notes sounds like an Eric Rohmer movie title. A literal translation would be something like 'The Unplowed Brain', which is clearly unsuitable, but surely a little thought along those lines would have produced a better name.

To the film itself. It's an adaptation of Marie-Sabine Roger's novel of the same name, and centers around the relationship between the sixtysomething Germain Chazes (Gérard Depardieu) and the 95-year-old Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus).  Germain is an amiable, fat, scarcely literate small-time vegetable gardener and handyman who works in the Chez Francine bistrot,  and Margueritte (whose father was semi-literate, hence the unconventional spelling) a charming, lonely, bookish ex-school teacher. This odd couple begin a friendship. As a child, Germain  was bullied at school by his English teacher, and at home by his slightly aggressive and self-destructive mother (played by Claire Maurier); he is even the present butt of jokes about his lack of learning by his drinking partners: he's never really stood a chance in the intellectual stakes. But as Germain and Margueritte's friendship develops, she teaches him some literature, and Germain is extremely eager to make up for lost time.

The film has been called sugar-coated, and The Daily Telegraph - very oddly - called its ending 'unforgivable'. The translated title isn't forgivable, a few of the sub-titles strike an odd chord ('Holy shit!' for 'Putain!', etc), but surely the weirdest thing is to cast the very bright, confidently literate Annette (the striking 33-year-old Sophie Guillemin) as the adoring girlfriend of Germain (the 63-year-old man mountain Depardieu). Anyway, isn't the Telegraph itself guilty of many more unforgivable things than this harmless, delightful - and gloriously French - film?

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