For this week in the blogging events Paris in July 2014 and Dreaming of France, I’m sharing with you two fine French Films. They are not new movies, but probably you had missed them when they first screened a few years ago, or they might not have screened in your area. I came across them only recently. Interestingly, they make a fine pair for they both touch on very similar themes.
My Afternoons with Margueritte (“La tête en friche”, 2010)
This comedy based on the book by French author Marie-Sabine Roger stars the famous French actor Gérard Depardieu as an uncouth, middle-aged construction worker, Germain Chazes. His lack of literacy skill is benign when compared to the low self-image he suffers as a result of the constant taunting from his teachers and classmates when he was young, and the life-long scolding from a harsh and overbearing mother (Claire Maurier). To his misfortune, Germain still has to live near her and take care of her, a woman now has senility to add to her abusive outbursts.
Germain’s life comes to a turning point when he meets Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus, who just turned 100 in June this year!) one afternoon on a park bench. Margueritte is an elderly lady living in a retirement home, and spends her afternoons in the park. She soon engages Germain to open up. Thus begins an unlikely friendship between the two.
More importantly, Margueritte leads Germain to a whole new world of books and literature. She reads to him The Plague by Albert Camus, going through it in ten afternoons. He listens and is totally entranced by the language and the imagery.
When she reads to him Promise At Dawn, the memoir by Romain Gary, he is absorbed by the author’s description of his late mother’s love for him, and especially moved by the imagery of Gary “howling at her grave like an abandoned dog.” He begins to see his own predicament with the lens from the books Margueritte reads to him.
Who says literature belongs to the academics, or those in the ivory tower of the intellectual and sophisticated. Why is it so incongruent to hear a construction worker quoting Camus, or his seeing the world in literary imageries, or being tender and caring for a change. Germain’s friends tease him, they want the old Germain back. But Germain knows too well that he has crossed the point of no return, and that his transformation is empowering.
Soon, with the help of his girl friend Annette (Sophie Guillemin), Germain learns to read on his own. Further, he has learned to give back to Margueritte in an endearing way. As far as the story trajectory goes, Germain could well write a book entitled How Camus Can Change Your Life (that’s mine, not in the film).
Charming performances and great screen chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus. A heart-warming story with sprinkles of humour for added appeal. A delightful and worthwhile film to watch.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Queen to Play (“Joueuse”, 2009)
Along the same thematic line is this quiet and stylish production set in the beautiful French island Corsica just off the mainland. From Depardieu’s construction worker we now have a middle-aged chambermaid, Hélène, who works in a seaside hotel. Hélène goes through an inner transformation even more dramatic than Germain’s. It is interesting to watch the game where the Queen is the most powerful piece is freed from its male dominance for a change.
Originally titled “Joueuse” (The Player), the film is based on the novel by French author Bertina Henrichs. Director Caroline Bottaro has displayed an inviting game board for us viewers to interact with, for watching the film makes us witnesses to a game change.
Sandrine Bonnaire’s portrayal of Hélène is sensitive and nuanced. The turning point of her life comes one day while cleaning a room. Through the translucent curtain swayed by the soft wind, she sees the hotel guests, a couple (Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould), playing chess out in the balcony. She is fully mesmerized. The game board, the pieces they touch, their mutual affection bonded by the game not only send out vibes of sensuality but of intellectual stimulation. (She beats him, BTW) From then on, Hélène is obsessed with chess.
She gives her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess set for his birthday. While he is unappreciative of the gift, many a nights Hélène would slip out of bed quietly and learn to play on her own. She now sees every piece of crumb, every salt and pepper set on the table a movable chess piece, any checkered surface a chessboard on which she can prance to her imagery delight.
Other than her hotel job, Hélène does cleaning for a mysterious widower, Dr. Kröger, played by Kevin Klein, his first French-speaking role. Hélène finds a chess set on his bookshelf and asks him to teach her the game. Skeptical and annoyed at first, Dr. Kröger agrees when she offers to clean his place for free in exchange for chess lessons. He soon discovers that Hélène is not only serious but gifted. After a few lessons, she begins to win repeatedly.
But Hélène keeps her pursuit secret, afraid of reverberations, and misunderstanding from her husband. Why does she need to be so sneaky? Can’t a woman desire matters of the mind? Can’t a chambermaid be absorbed by the game of chess, set foot on a male-dominated, intellectual territory? Would Hollywood make a movie like this?
Hélène’s teenaged daughter is her supporter at home when her husband finds out. He too later yields to her passion as Hélène enters her first tournament upon Dr. Kröger’s recommendation.
Oh I love these French films, for they unabashedly praise the arts, literature, and intellectual pursuits; their protagonists quietly shattering social norms and barriers to personal fulfillment. Queen to Play reminds me of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Do you need to know how to play chess to enjoy the film? No. Actually, the camera seldom focuses on the chessboard. Instead, we see the faces of the chess players, that is where we read all the emotions.
Intriguing as chess moves, beautiful as the crafted pieces, the film is a joy to watch, a satisfying winner.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
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