Dir. Jean Becker. France, 2007. 109mins.
A pleasant talkathon featuring a successful painter relocating to the country estate of his late parents and the gardener he hires, Conversation With My Gardener is the kind of film that veteran director Jean Becker should be capable of directing with one hand tied behind his back. Inoffensive and unconfrontational, and never trying to scratch under the neat lacquered surface of cheerful double entendres and sunny repartees, this is a natural platform for the talents of Daniel Auteuil and Jean-Pierre Daroussin.
But while two leads do not seem to be terribly excited about the material they have to deal with - just mildly and politely interested. Eminently suitable for middle-aged and up audiences who do not wish to be unnecessarily troubled, just amiably entertained, it is the answer to the prayers of TV programmers looking for material that can fit any time slot of the day with equal grace. Prior to that, a modest theatrical career and a few festival dates should provide the right launching pad.
Daniel Auteuil plays the country boy who went to Paris and became a sophisticated artist. Now, tired of the mundane life of the capital, he retreats back to the parental home he has inherited. Since the house has been deserted for the last three years, he asks in a retired railway worker, to fix up the garden and install a vegetable garden, just like the one his parents had.
When his future gardener (Daroussin) arrives, it turns out the two of them had the same bench and the same pranks in elementary school, but parted ways when the son of the pharmacist went to Paris and ended up at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts, while his pal stayed in the village. There he went to work for the state railway, then recently retired with a respectable, if not quite sufficient pension, and a yen to fulfil his secret passion, gardening, which he had never had the time to indulge before.
Re-bonding on the spot, they exchange pleasantries for the rest of the film, pat each other on the back, discover the differences between the worldly Parisian life and the simple charm of country life and nature. Intimacies are revealed once in a while but they never get to be explored deeply, instead sharing the same suspicions about the younger generation's incompetence and its refusal to follow the advice of their elders.
But what they mostly do is indulge in the kind of friendship between people of a certain age who have learned to avoid any thorny issues which might disturb their peace of mind. As the relationship is about to exhaust itself, Fate intervenes as it is wont to do with the help of the scriptwriter; now the gardener's health problems are introduced, the painter is allowed to display his sincere and heart-felt concern as the story takes a turn towards its bitter-sweet ending.
Adapted from a novel by Henri Cueco, the script expertly avoids any unpleasantness or actual conflict, though many such options are offered along the way. The painter's marriage is falling apart, but in the most civilized and courteous way, Fanny Cottencon being the sweetest, most understanding and sympathetic kind of divorcee a fashionable artist could wish for himself.
The gardener appears to be kept on a pretty short leash by his wife, and once the haggard face of Hiam Abbass, obscured for the most part but finally revealed in the last reel, there is obviously a lot more that could have been said on the subject but was not. The only relatively confrontational moment in the picture is introduced in the brief screen passage of the painter's daughter (Alexia Barlier) but even that conflict has a complacent, peaceable solution.
The pun-ladden dialogue, whose word plays will amuse Francophone audiences more than subtitle readers, permits Daroussin to upstage the better known Auteuil, allowing every once in a while glimmers of real emotions to penetrate through the country bumpkin mask he is supposed to wear.
Moving along at a calm, laid back pace, after all leaving the big city means never having to hurry again, Becker invites Jean-Marie Dreujou's camera to gaze lovingly at the pastoral settings, and even foul weather, in these circumstances, is never less than photogenic. True, the ending is sad, but nothing one can't bear with a little help from good friends.