Nico­tine fit

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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

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