As the narrator himself admits at the end of the film, this is not a typical love story. It is a heart-warming, extraordinary affair between two extraordinary people.
The film works on a slender storyline about a chance meeting between the clumsy, quasi-literate village odd-job man Germain Chazes (Gerard Depardieu — one of the few stars who can effortlessly carry off an over sized overall) and the 95-year old Margueritte — with an extra, lilting ‘t’ — a gentle, erudite retiree who gives the film its name (the grande dame of French cinema, the beautifully elegant Gisele Casadesus).
They meet on a park bench one sunny afternoon, bonding over a mutual affection for pigeons which expands into reading, literature, Camus, love and life. Margueritte begins reading to the semi-literate Germain, sparking off his interest in reading and knowledge and with it, buoying an expanded sense of self-esteem.
He finds himself loving this new woman in his life, his saviour in his small, despairing world. The still beautiful Margueritte whom he is hopelessly fascinated with, patiently becomes the kind mother and teacher he never had. He’s the son she never had. She’s the mother he longs for and eventually deserves.
It is a simple, disarmingly sweet, life-affirming film taken to a layered, deeper and richer level by two outstanding performances that make you want to forgive the small glitches — the film does slip occasionally into the trivial and the predictable.
For instance, the frequent, contrived flashbacks to Germain's childhood and his bad-tempered, young mother (Anne Le Guernec) are very literal and lack imagination.
But it is the relationship blossoming between the two sad souls which is so comforting. The solace which comes across arises from sharing ideas and emotions; Margueritte doesn’t make Germain learn to read, she gives him courage to think. She reads aloud works of Romain Gary and Albert Camus.
But a simple sentence from Gary’s Promise at Dawn — ‘Life makes promises it can’t keep’ makes a disillusioned Germain realise that he is no worse than an abandoned, stray dog — unloved and demeaned from the day he was born by his neurotic, harridan mother (Claire Maurier) and nearly everyone he knows in the village except his lovely, loving girlfriend Annette (Sophie Guillemin), who loves him for what he is — a warm, loving man who has never been loved by anyone.
An employer cheats him, his friends poke fun at him, his neighbour laughs at his simple-mindedness and, most damagingly, he cannot get over the cruelty and torment he suffered as a child. So much so that when Annette wants to have their baby, Germain feels he can never love a child properly.
Tenderly performed, Becker gives a warm message about the journey of knowledge. It has its powerful, moving moments especially when Germain is shown as an ‘enlightened’ man and it dawns upon him how much his ignorance has affected him.
The dictionary which Margueritte has gifted him, is a metaphor and as Germain himself confesses, the thick book makes him feel like a myopic who has been given glasses. Margueritte has shown him a brave, new world which Germain has just discovered and revels in.
Jean Becker, who directed and co-adapted this movie from Marie-Sabine Roger’s novel, has a breezy, unhurried script, which creates a disarming intimacy immediately. The presence of Germain and Margueritte is felt in every shot and frame — even when not always physically present.
The cinematography is as charming as the French village life it depicts. Becker plays beautifully with shadows, the light and darkness. The park where the two protagonists meet is always shown chirpily bright and sunny.
The pub where he spends time with his friends is warm and friendly but boisterous. The house of his mother is always in shadows, illuminated occasionally by a light as harsh and loud like its owner.
As the elegant, self-possessed Margueritte, Casadesus plays the role in all her ethereal frail beauty. Depardieu as the oafish, crude, large, gentle Germain with a big, loud mouth but a large heart and who lumbers in his denim overalls and chomps on his sandwiches leaves you thoroughly moved.
His face glows with a certain radiance — be it ignorance or be it basking in his new found books, or his new friend.
He plays the loser, looks foolishly naive; but what is important is that Depardieu, with his gruff effervescence, shows Germain as emotionally enlightened, a changed man, who finally comes to terms with his life, his pain while reaching important decisions about Annette — and Margueritte.