“Small-town bumpkin Gérard Depardieu learns to love reading from a 95-year-old bibliophile” sounds like sufficient provocation for even Francophilic fans of middlebrow star vehicles to tear out their eyeballs and hurl them at the screen, but My Afternoons with Margueritte is generally as painless as it is hackneyed. Depardieu, a hulking figure in overalls and work shirt as trailer-dwelling jack-of-all-trades Germain Chazes, hardly seems a tragic, solitary figure, with his attractive young bus-driver girlfriend (Sophie Guillemin) and circle of mildly abusive drinking buddies at the town bistro. Barely literate (he’s apt to mistake Guy de Maupassant for a competitor of the Guide Michelin), but blessed with gardening skill that nets him cash at the greenmarket, Germain is still verbally lashed by his elderly, ranting mother (Claire Maurier), who keeps his self-esteem dimmed at its lifelong flicker. Unsurprisingly, he’s vulnerable to the delicate, steady attention paid him by former globetrotting health worker Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus, in her eighth decade of screen acting), a park-bench habitué whose daily pigeon-watching rendezvous with Germain soon evolves into oral readings of Camus and Romain Gary.
The wispy Casadesus projects warmth and lack of condescension, and that’s all the role asks of her. Yet her chats with Depardieu are the most vivid scenes in the film; underplaying both Germain’s self-deprecation and gallantry, he can still hold the screen with an energy that’s akin to a vestige of his youthful sexual menace. Director Jean Becker, co-adapting a popular novel with Jean-Loup Dabadie, errs in breaking up this sentimental education with brief scenes from Margueritte’s literary choices (swarming rats from The Plague) and flashbacks to pubescent Germain being mocked by his shrewish mom and smug schoolteacher. (A more satisfying shift comes when Becker, flashing some of the passion and vinegar dispensed in his father Jacques’s best films, shows the young Madame Chazes thrusting the business end of a pitchfork into an abusive boyfriend’s thighs.) Germain’s bonhomie with the bistro regulars has the feel of a TV comedy pilot, which is more than can be said of the monologues he speaks to his cat, one on the inadequacies of the dictionary. Supplying three uplifting last-act twists where one would suffice to boost the audience’s blood sugar, My Afternoons with Margueritte finally rushes to meet its self-defined limitations as the awakened man turns rescuer, but lacking the narrative credibility of even a superficial page-turner.