On My Way, road trip, not rated, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 2 chiles
There are many worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of Catherine Deneuve. Having said that, there are probably few worse ways to spend a couple of hours in the company of the grande dame of French cinema than in Emmanuelle Bercot’s third feature, an aimless meander through the French countryside in search of a story.
But still, it is Catherine Deneuve, who remains vibrantly beautiful as she sails into her eighth decade, carrying a few more pounds than she did in her salad days, but doing so with grace and elegance.
Deneuve plays Bettie, the owner of a small restaurant in Brittany that is, we are told, on shaky legs. She is a widow, her husband having died some years earlier from choking on a chicken bone, a story she has developed into an anecdote that she tells with some amusement. She lives at home with her controlling mother (Claude Gensac), who cheerfully reveals to Bettie (“You had to hear it from somebody”) that her lover of many years, a married man, has finally left his wife — but not for her, for a 25-year-old. The news rocks Bettie, and knocks her off the smoking wagon. And, to make matters worse, she’s out of cigarettes.
What begins as a cigarette run turns into a road trip, which eventually becomes a buddy picture of the grandparent-and-grandchild-who-start-out-prickly-but-come-to-love-each-other genre. This development doesn’t come along until well into Bettie’s wanderings, which include a drunken one- night stand with a young man she picks up in a bar, a night spent sleeping in a furniture showroom under the protection of a kindly security guard, and a scene, perhaps the most memorable in the picture, in which Bettie waits with heroic patience as an old man tries, with gnarled, arthritic fingers, to roll her a cigarette.
About three- quarters of an hour along, Bercot decides the movie needs to be heading somewhere, so Bettie gets a phone call from her estranged and volatile daughter, Muriel (the pop singer Camille). Muriel’s starting a new job, and she demands that her mother come and pick up her 11-year-old son, Charly (Nemo Schiffman), and drive him to stay with his paternal grandfather, the mayor of a distant small town. It’s a trip amounting to many hundreds of kilometers, but having nothing better to do, and wearing parental guilt like a shawl, Bettie agrees.
Along the way to grandfather’s house, Bettie and Charly stop off at a 50th reunion of former Miss France contestants assembled for a calendar photo shoot at a resort hotel. Bettie, a Miss Brittany of that distant year, has been getting calls from the organizers about this. We think she’s blown them off, but suddenly she’s there, clambering into a gown and sash and being told to suck in her tummy and lift her head to minimize the double chin. This extended sequence is here to illustrate what the movie is essentially about, which is the trials and indignities of advancing age, especially for women, and the inevitable, unsparing retreat of youthful beauty — and how, without any viable alternative, one might as well make the best of it. Life, as the movie does not hesitate to remind us from time to time, goes on.
Many of the characters Bettie comes in contact with along her way, including the cigarette-rolling old man and the young stud from the bar, are played by nonactors — real people, as they say. They handle themselves well and add some spontaneity to the film, bolstered by the star’s capable, comforting presence. The boy (played by the director’s son) is engaging and spirited, and Deneuve remains eminently watchable throughout, but there is seldom a moment when you are convinced that there was a reason, apart from her, to make this film. As it turns out, there wasn’t.
“For me, the reason for this film to exist was Catherine,” Bercot revealed at a festival press conference. “I wrote it for her. The driving force behind this film was not the story we tell in the film, but rather working with Catherine. She is the film as far as I’m concerned. I can’t put it better than that. I had one idea as a starting point, to film Catherine.”
Using Deneuve as the lynchpin for a movie about getting old hardly seems fair — it is setting the bar high on the aging process.
On My Way (the French title, Elle s’en va, which roughly translates as “She’s leaving,” makes more sense) dallies through a series of unrelated vignettes, picks up a trite storyline about halfway through, and then makes a sudden swerve into an unlikely romance near its close.
“Two days ago,” Bettie says toward the end of the film, “I was in my little town with my little life. I got in my car for a drive, and one thing led to another.” That’s a pretty fair summary.
Smoke and mirrors: Catherine Deneuve