Absolutely bloody typical -- if you'll pardon my language! I've wanted to see this French film since I first saw it reviewed a few years ago. However if it had a cinema showing here, it must have been a brief one and it has never been issued on DVD in Britain. So when I was in New York a few weeks ago, I managed to source a copy -- which in itself wasn't straightforward. So what happens? BBC4 decides to screen it last weekend. Sometimes you can't win -- or patience is a virtue -- or something.
Anyhow, why was I so keen to see it? Well, historically any film starring Gerard Depardieu has proved to be something worth watching -- even if his personal behaviour grows ever more bizarre keeping pace with his waistline. In this movie he plays a nearly illiterate country bumpkin whose very limited world begins to expand after a chance meeting in the park with a very old lady. The concept sounded irresistible from the get-go and so it was. He is sufficiently popular amongst his friends in the local tavern -- even if they continually affectionately mock his naivety and gaucheness or view him as the amusing village idiot. He ekes out a living with odd jobs and by selling the luscious vegetables that he grows in the yard of his mother's house (where he resides in a small trailer). He even has a comely young girlfriend (Sophie Guillermin) in local bus driver Annette. However through brief flashbacks we discover how he was derided at school by unkindly teachers and how he always seemed to come second in his mother's eyes as she dallied with a succession of abusive paramours.
Then he meets Margueritte -- misspelled with two T's as she points out. She resides in a local upmarket senior home, but comes to the park each day to read and to watch the pigeons. There she gets into conversation with Depardieu's Germain who comes each day to make certain that all of the pigeons (which he has named) are present and accounted for. She is played by the extremely spritely Giselle Casadesus, a long-time stalwart of the Comedie Francaise, who was born in 1914. This would make her 95 or 96 when director Jean Becker shot this film and unbelievably she has featured in six films since. She is a retired scientist and bibliophile, caring and articulate, whose books line the walls of her small room; reading aloud now gives her the greatest pleasure. Germain protests that he is not much of a reader himself, but is captivated when he listens to her words each afternoon. What's more he retains what he hears. She compliments him on his excellent 'aural' memory, but he corrects her to say that he just remembers what is said. She gifts him a dictionary to help him explore the richness of words and the magic of literature, but he is frustrated with it; if he is unable to spell he can't find the words for which he is searching and it doesn't seem to have the right definitions. For example, a tomato is defined by its botanical name rather than by the various specific varieties that he grows. It is all very confusing to him, but he comes not only to love the way that Margueritte has begun to expand his horizons but to love her and her passion for life as well.
However everything comes to a turning point when Margueritte confides that she is beginning to lose her eyesight and will no longer be able to read. Germain is determined to perfect his own abilities so that he can fill this gap for her. However when he rushes to the nursing home to share the happy news that Annette is pregnant, he finds that her Belgian relatives who had been contributing to the costs have taken her and her precious books away. He traces them to their faraway home to discover that they have dumped the old lady in a grim, dark government facility. Spoiler here....he has no option but to physically whisk her away, back to the house that he has now inherited from his latterly loony-tunes mother. It turns out Ma cared for him more than she ever showed. And there the tale ends.
The French title for this film, "La Tete en Friche", is rather more apt than its English title. Loosely translated it means the head as an empty, unploughed field. With love and gentleness, Germain's head begins to fill up with the pleasures of literature and learning, much to the consternation of his mates who marvel at the 'big' words he has begun to spout -- not to show off so much as to demonstrate that he now understands them. This storyline could have produced an unsufferably twee film, sickening in its calculating, saccharine sweetness. However Becker with the help of his two wonderful and adept leads has given us a movie that is both sincere and affecting, warm and human. You really can't ask for much more other than to hope that there is never an American remake.