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13 March 2014

La Tête en friche (2010)

My Afternoons with Margueritte
Directed by:  Jean Becker
Music: Laurent Voulzy
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Gisèle Casadesus, Claire Maurier, 
Sophie Guillemin, François-Xavier Demaison, Maurane, 
Florian Yven, Patrick Bouchitey, Régis Laspalès, 
Jean-François Stévenin, Lyes Salem, Matthieu Dahan,
Bruno Ricci, Mélanie Bernier
What happens when a chance encounter with a stranger changes your life in ways that are unfathomable? What are the odds that you will discover a connection between the two of you that cannot be explained? When you talk about 'love' between two people, is there a definition that fits all relationships? Director Jean Becker (son of the great French noir director Jacques Becker) makes a movie that has a will-'o-the-wisp quality about it. Yet, the simple tale is grounded in the commonplace, everyday life of an semi-literate villager and the strange-but-not-quite experiences that befall him during his lunchtimes at a nearby park.

In a little village that still retains its old-time charm, we first meet Germain Chazes ( Gérard Depardieu), an unprepossessing hulk of a handyman, as he finishes his job and leaves, counting his day's pay. He is furious when he realises that he's been shortchanged, but his employer doesn't budge. 
When we see Germain next, he is busy scribbling his name on a plaque under the statue in the nearby park. Then he walks further into the park where he comes across a kit of pigeons. He begins to count them when he is startled by a woman's voice saying, '19'. He hadn't paid much attention to the old woman (Gisèle Casadesus) sitting on the bench. He is even more amused when she calls him 'young man'. But to her, he is. 

She is intrigued by him as well. Why is he counting the pigeons?  
No two are exactly alike, and they all have different personalities, so he names them to keep track... They are White Feathers, Pierre, Chikadee,  Marguerite... Oh, she interrupts delightedly. Like me! 

Her name is Margueritte, avec deux t (with two ts). Her father didn't know how to spell very well, she explains, and her mother decided to let it be. She was born from a love story, Margueritte continues, like everyone. No, says Germain. Not everyone. Some are mistakes. He gets up to leave. Margueritte, her attention held, gently enquires whether they will meet again. Yes, he says, and then, kindly warning her to keep her handbag closer so no one will snatch it, walks into the restaurant opposite the park. 
It is obvious that Germain is well-liked by his friends, even if condescended to by Msr. Landremont, his employer. When Landremont makes fun of him, Germain automatically remembers how he was cruelly teased by his teacher when he was a boy. Justifiably annoyed, he leaves the restaurant and goes back home. 'Home' is a trailer in the backyard of his alcoholic mother's house, where he grows vegetables (which he gives Francine at the  restaurant in return for the use of her van, and also sells in the local farmer's market). His mother, a single mom, had never been maternal; all Germain can remember is being berated and insulted every moment of his life with her, both in private and in public. But there is one person who loves him. Annette (Sophie Guillemin), his girlfriend. Her love is for the man that Germain is - kind, gentle, loving. 
The next afternoon, he is back in the park: scribbling his name on the war monument, and counting the pigeons, when Margueritte arrives. She has a thought about pigeons she wants to share, but as she remarks, she forgets her thoughts most of the time. She pulls out her book, The Plague by Albert Camus to refresh her memory. Germain is entranced by the description though he does not agree with it. Margueritte offers to lend him the book, but Germain, his recollections of his boyhood humiliation at his teacher's hands still fresh in his mind, tells her it would be better if she read to him. Margueritte is thrilled. She likes to read aloud, and when she does it on her own, people look at her askance. Now she has an avid listener. The imagery in the book is powerful, and Germain is shaken by the visuals. He is sensitive to the atmosphere. 
The afternoon readings continue, and ten days later, they have completed The Plague.  At the end, Margueritte gives him the greatest gift of all: she tells Germain that he is an excellent reader. He? Yes, for reading is also listening. She gives him her copy of The Plague, for, she says, she is just a courier. 
That night, unable to sleep, Germain valiantly gives Camu a try, an effort that stands him in good stead the next day when his comrades are discussing an earthquake. Landremont is shocked that Germain (whom he has often dismissed as a moron) has actually read Camus. Oh, not all, says Germain casually. Just The Plague, The Fall, and  The Stranger.  
Landremont is taken aback, but before he can probe further, Germaine notices that Lorraine is not herself. It is because Youssef, the waiter (and Lorraine's lover), has run away with a customer. Kind-hearted Germain tries to console Lorraine, but manages, as always to open his mouth and put both his feet in. His friends, listening, are in splits. Germain leaves in a huff.

But his afternoons with Margueritte continue, and she reads passages from Romain Gary's memoirs, passages that talk of maternal love. This leads Germain to confide in Margueritte about his own strained relationship with his mother. 

At their next meeting, Margueritte brings Germain another gift - a dictionary. It will help him, she says, to travel from one word to the next. What would he like to read next? An adventure? A mystery? Amazon Indians, he tells her. He had a comic about Indian when he was a boy, and was curious to hear more about them. She has just the book in her library, she tells him, but he will have to come to her place - her room in the retirement home where she lives. So tea on Tuesday, it is. Which leads to slight misunderstanding with Annette who thinks the flowers he's gathered from his garden are for her.

When Germain meets Margueritte, he returns the dictionary to her. It is of no use to him, he says because he doesn't know how to spell. He'd tried to learn with her, he says, but it hurt too much. It was better when things were blurry; now that he started, he's beginning to see his flaws. Oh, says Margueritte in disappointment. She'd found a book on the Amazon Indians, but perhaps she should keep it back? Germain is intrigued by the synopsis of the story, and they spend a happy hour together, she reading, and he listening intently.

This will perhaps be the last story she will read him; she has macular degeneration, and will soon be blind. She won't be able to count the pigeons any more, she tells him with a laugh. She will need a cane to walk in the street. Germain is taken aback, but he tells her he will take care of the cane.
Back in his trailer, he is working on carving a head for the cane, when Annette storms in. She'd waited for him all day; who did he give the flowers to? What's her name? Germain is taken aback, but snaps back, her name is Margueritte, with two ts. She is 95, and he loves her. Annette quietly sits down as Germain continues, more temperately. What will happen to Margueritte, he asks, when her world goes dark? She lives for her books. What will happen to her when she cannot read? You read to her, says Annette, you have to try. So he practices.
When he meets Margueritte the next afternoon, he has a couple of surprises in store for her. Margueritte is both touched and thrilled. 
Germain has blossomed under Margueritte's confidence in his abilities, and her unconditional affection for him, but Margueritte's life is beginning to fall apart. However, there are a few more surprises for both of them before the film winds down to a very predictable, but utterly satisfying (to me) end. 
Gérard Depardieu, older now, and much heavier, fit into the skin of the half-literate, clumsy, bovine hulk, Germaine, just as much as he fits into the shapeless blue overalls that is his usual costume. The character, abused and neglected by his mother, and made fun of by his friends, could have been much darker. But between Becker and Depardieu, they made Germain a pained but relatively contented character, who accepts life as it comes to him. 
He is kind, helpful, cheerful, even capable of loving Annette even though he is against having a child for fear that with his history, he would be incapable of loving a child. He is a poet, Germain, even though he would not know 'poetry' if it hit him in the face. He might be 'simple', but the way Depardieu plays him, with warmth, he is both innocent and self-aware at the same time, though prone to opening his mouth and putting both his feet in. Also, he is no beaten-down village idiot; he is perfectly capable of standing up for himself. Only, he doesn't often care enough.

Angry though he is at Landremont for cheating him out of his rightly-earned wages, and at humiliating him in public, Germain is still willing to leave Annette's side to help him. Hurt though he is at his mother's contempt, he still takes her of her as long as she lives. (And she is not one-dimensionally evil either; she abuses him, but she protects him from others' abuse.) He is tender with Annette, and treats Margueritte like he treats his pigeons - with affection, accompanied by an innocent wonder that she treats him like an equal. He sees Margueritte as a thing of great beauty, but fragile, much like the glass doe he sees in a shop window.
The joy, the warmth, the charm, also comes from the elegantly beautiful Gisèle Casadesus, who plays the gentle Margueritte (avec deux 't'). There is a self-deprecating (and puckish) humour that underlines her description of herself and her life. She is old enough to have an understanding of the man whom chance or Fate brought into her life. What sets her relationship with Germaine apart is that Margueritte holds nothing against Germaine, not even his self-professed ignorance of reading. She is a retired scientist, one who is bravely (and not in a flag-waving manner) facing a lot of upheaval in her personal life, but there is nothing but acceptance of her circumstances, though she does not negate them. 
In actual fact, that is the strength of La Tête en friche - that the characters, both slightly on the outside looking in, both neglected, one benignly, one traumatically, are also self-aware and accepting of their own frailties and that of their fellow humans. Depardieu and Casadesus infuse this simple tale with gentleness and affection, and an unexpected sunniness that warms the heart.  

Based on a novel of the same name by Marie-Sabine Roger, La Tête en friche (literally, A Blank Slate or Idle head - I have no idea why the American title diverged so much but I have given up wondering) is a charming tale of two lost people finding joy in an unexpectedly symbiotic relationship. Becker keeps the tale taut, focussing mainly on the unlikely friendship between Germain and Margueritte, but never letting us forget the more serious themes that criss-cross the narrative. Yet, the pace is gentle, almost langorous, and there is an appreciation of words, both written and spoken. That, in fact, is the foundation of their strange friendship - she loves words, he is curious about books, not having had a great relationship with them in his childhood. 

As always, when I finished writing the film up, I read some of the reviews. I found most people harping on the 'love' between Germain and Margueritte, and having watched the movie, I find myself baffled. What love, if by 'love' you mean a romantic love?  Margueritte is very fond of Germain (and he, of her) as is evidenced by her increasing interest in his life. It is her interest, and confidence in him that makes him understand that he is not quite as much of a village idiot as his friends consider him. (And as he considers himself.) Yes, he loves her, and in the end, he is heard quoting: Not always are stories just made of love. Sometimes love is not named. But it's love just the same. But where did people see a romantic love between the two characters that caused them such disgust?
Germaine loves Annette (the ravishing Sophie Guillemin) and she loves him. (And that seems to be another sore point with most viewers. 'Improbably attraction' someone called it, 'totally implausible' said another. My question is why is it improbable or implausible? Who but the two people in a relationship can tell you why they love the other? Does the heart have a reason? Does it need one?) Watch the movie, and I, for one, can see why Annette feels the way she does about this kind, gentle giant. Despite the difference in their ages, she is the one who drives the relationship. 

To me, this film has charm. It has simplicity. It has innocence. Yes, it has 'romance'  - not as we know it today, but harking back to a simpler time when 'love' could mean so much more than just 'romantic  love'.  Spend an afternoon or two with Germain and Margueritte, do. It is worthwhile trying to see how strangers can connect in the most unexpected of ways, and how liking and friendship, and yes, love, can bloom in the most unexpected of places.


  1. Where on earth do you find the time to watch all these films? If there was any justice in this world, you'd be writing all the time, 'coz you seem to be putting up a post every time I blink!

    This one sounds lovely. I'll keep a sharp lookout for DVDs or youtube prints. In the meantime, can you tell me how it ends? Germaine becomes a world renowned writer and wins the Nobel at the end? Margueritte leaves him a fortune and Annette and he live happily-ever-after in a comfy cottage? He opens up a shop of glass figurines and talks Camus to all his customers? None of the above?

  2. I'm not, actually. Writing all the time, I mean. I do have a job, you know. :) No, most of the posts you have seen this year were drafts that I had stored last year. This one is the first film I wrote about in the New Year. :)


    No, none of the above. Itna predictable bhi nahin hai, yaar. It's French, after all. :)

    Germain's mother dies and leaves him the house. Annette is pregnant and slightly worried about telling Germain because he was so sure he didn't want any children. But he is overjoyed. He asks Annette to let him off at the retirement home so he can share the news with Margueritte. But she has left. He is told that her nephew took her away to Belgium. So he borrows Francine's van and crosses the border and goes looking for her nephew. The nephew and his wife do not have Margueritte with them; they have put her in another retirement home, one that is cheaper. So Germain goes there, meets Margueritte, tells her his news, and practically 'kidnaps' her. much to her glee. They are last shown driving back into France.

    One assumes, of course, that he, Annette, Margueritte and the soon-to-come-baby will all live happily together in his mother's house, where Germain can tend his garden and live with the two women who love him unconditionally and he loves in return. :)

  3. Mmm. I like Depardieu a lot, so this one goes on my list. Anu, tum kab baaz aaogi? One film after another which I need to see. :-(

    Interestingly, at the start of your review, when I read that bit about "What
    are the odds that you will discover a connection between the two of you
    that cannot be explained? When you talk about 'love' between two
    people, is there a definition that fits all relationships?
    ", I was reminded of one of my favourite relatively recent films, which coincidentally shares a name with one of the Camus books you mention: The Fall. A very different film from this one, I suppose, since it has a large element of supposed fantasy - but a totally wonderful film, and with an unusual love story (no, not romantic) developing in it.

  4. My list of films I have seen after reading your review is growing. This one is not on YT; otherwise I would have seen it by now before I commented. But someday Insha Allah!

    Wonderful review. I hope the movie is as beautiful as your writing.


  5. Anu, tum kab baaz aaogi?
    But, but, don't you want to know about all the lovely films out there that you haven't seen? :( (Puppy eyes.) *grin*

    And see, you returned the favour. I had heard of The Fall but hadn't watched it. So, there it goes on my list of to-watch films.

  6. You've made my day, AK. *Big grin* But yes, do, do put this on your to-watch list. It's a wonderful little film, made better by the performances.

  7. I usually type out my comment directly on your blog, but
    this time—this time I had loads to say, so I took the precaution of typing it
    out on word. I first saw Depardieu long, long ago in a fairy tale. This was on television,
    it was some Canadian production and if memory serves me right, these series of
    fairy tales used to be shown on Sunday mornings on Doordarshan. I remember
    being quite impressed by him. Later I saw a few of his films.

    I relate to this
    story at more than one level, besides that, your remarks have struck a chord in
    my heart. If we were sitting somewhere face to face I would definitely have
    this long discussion with you. I relate to Margueritte’s character. My maternal
    grandma was an avid reader, she was not very educated that is she did not have
    any degree to her name, she got married early (as was the practice those days),
    she was not able to finish her schooling, yet I would call her an educated
    woman. You see she read all the classics not just the Bengali ones but also the
    Bengali translations of such classics like Gorky’s Mother. I will be honest and
    not pretend, I have not attempted to read Mother. She was just in her mid-fifties when I saw her eyesight weakening.
    She had come to visit us in Bombay, we had the Bengali novel Satyakam at home,
    the moment grandma saw it, she decided to read it. Every morning, when there
    was enough sunlight I saw her taking the book and holding it close to her eyes,
    and reading it avidly.

    Then there is the relation between the two lead characters,
    you have really described it so well. I found myself in a similar situation
    with a young man in his early twenties two decades ago. There was this huge age
    gap between us, we were both learning German, he for professional reasons and I
    was learning because I always wanted to learn it. Strangely he took a liking
    for me. Professionally he was successful, but personally he was slightly unsure
    since he was physically challenged. Along the way I played cupid and gave him
    that slight push which he needed to propose to the young lady he had fallen in
    love with. He was hesitating and to me it was pretty obvious that his lady love
    was just waiting for his proposal. Today he is happily settled in New York,
    both he and his wife are doing well in their respective careers and are parents
    of a very intelligent 12 year old boy. On every wedding anniversary his wife
    does not forget to thank me for bringing them together.

    I am not surprised that other reviewers saw only romantic love in
    this relationship. You see people have a one-track mind; some people can be
    quite disgusting. Some time back I came across a review of Anupama in one of
    the film blogs, as I was scrolling down the comments section I was surprised to
    see that some of readers actually felt that the father had incestuous feelings
    for the daughter, I was so disgusted, how could they even think like that?

    Many a times we like to express some things but are unable
    to put them in the right words, you did it with your apt observation,
    she is a retired scientist, one who is bravely (and not in a flag-
    waving manner) facing a lot of upheaval in her personal life, but there is
    nothing but acceptance of her circumstances, though she does not negate
    . In short a very well written review, I definitely would like to
    see this film.

  8. Shilpi, I'm glad you took the time to type this out. Your anecdote about your classmate (learning German) was very interesting. And I like happy endings in life just as much as I like happy endings in films.

    I'm as disgusted as you are at that reading of Anupama. A father's repressed love for his only daughter, how on earth can anyone see it as incestuous? Talk about taking something beautiful and rolling it in filth! Ugh!

    Thank you for the words of appreciation. And yes, please see if you can get your hands on a copy of this film. It really is a charming film.

  9. Do watch The Fall, Anu. I think you'll like it. Bawa recommended it when I reviewed Les Quatres Cent Coups because she felt it was another good film with a child protagonist, and I couldn't agree more. I loved it.

  10. It's a very charming film about how your never to old to learn something new and the different types of love that people encounter in their lives. I liked that it wasn't an "extreme makeover" type of story where a boorish, stupid oaf suddenly becomes a cultured gentleman. The film makes an effort to point out that Germain isn't stupid or mentally inadequate, he's just uneducated (which isn't surprising considering his bad experiences with the educational system as a child) and we get to see through Margueritte (avec deux t)'s influence what Germain may have been able to accomplish if he had a good teacher to guide him in the first place. Germain also seems relate-able and real' he gets frustrated by his own limitations, and sometimes his new found knowledge ends up getting him into more trouble than it's worth.

    As for their relationship, Germain and Margueritte (avec deux t) have such a lovley, heartwarming relationship. The way the relationship that developed between these two was juxtaposed against Germain's childhood was brilliant. It came across (to me at least) as almost cathartic for Germain--he was able to let out his true emotions and blossom in his own way and his own terms; and Margueritte gains a constant companion in Germain. They fill each others' emotional holes which I don't think includes romantic love since Germain has Annette. Also, how is Germain/Annette an improbable attraction? we don't fall in love with simply a face or a body we look deeper into the person and accept them based on who they are as a whole, don't we? (at least I hope people do) We can't be superficial in that regard, not when we want to form truly deep connections with the other person, right?

    Anyways, I liked the film and I could go on about the nature of the relationships between the characters in this film but I shall spare you lol (plus I just broke a nail **OH THE HUMANITY!** and I must tend to it)

    PS: That comment about the incestuous nature of the father/daughter relationship in Anupama (one of my favourite films) is disgusting. You're right how can someone sully such a hauntingly beautiful thing? Sometimes people try waaaay too hard to read into the meaning of certain things...

  11. Already put it on to my Netflix queue. :) Thank you for the recommendation.

  12. I liked that it wasn't an "extreme makeover" type of story where a boorish, stupid oaf suddenly becomes a cultured gentleman.

    Yes, I liked that they kept it real. He's never going to look at books the way she does, but he learns to read with so much more confidence, and one hopes that his curiousity (with Margueritte's continued influnce and Annette's support) will lead him to struggle through some more reading.

    Yes, you are right about the catharsis of Germain's emotions. It is a safe place for him to bring them out.

    Also, how is Germain/Annette an improbable attraction?
    Deep sigh. Yes, I never understood that at all. Because she was young and beautiful and Germain is older and obviously not good-looking? I suppose that is what got people's backs up.

    Laughing at your comment about going on and on about the relationships in the film. I had to edit so much out of this post; it was so long!


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