Deneuve’s compelling performance salvages run-of-the-mill French dramedy
With her new film On My Way, French writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot has made a fairly standard finding-yourself-late-in-life picture (see About Schmidt and Something’s Gotta Give, among others), with the saving grace that the inestimable Catherine Deneuve is its star. Deneuve elevates what could have been a dime-a-dozen quirky French dramedy into a picture worth watching, if only for her performance.
On My Way is the Americanized translation of the film’s original title, Elle s’en va, which, when translated literally into English, actually means She Goes, a much more apt title of the film, given its premise. The film concerns the sixtyish Bettie (Deneuve, who turned 70 this past fall), a provincial woman born, raised, and still living in Brittany in northern France with her elderly mother. Bettie, who has had her fair share of tragedies, runs a restaurant that is barely staying afloat; one day she spontaneously walks out of the lunch rush, devastated after finding out she’s been betrayed by her lover. She gets in her car, and drives somewhat aimlessly – naturally having a series of sad and comic adventures in short order – until she gets a call from her estranged daughter, Muriel (Camille Delmais), asking her to drive her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman, exhibiting nice range) to his paternal grandfather’s (Gerard Garouste) house some 300 miles away while Muriel goes to a job interview in Belgium.
What follows is a somewhat typical odd-couple road trip movie, with Bettie and her 11-year-old grandson Charly alternately quarreling and laughing, but ultimately, of course, connecting, as they make their way through rural France, taking requisite bonding detours along the way. The best of these wayside adventures takes place when Bettie, at the last minute, decides to participate in a reunion and charity calendar project for the Miss France competition contestants from 1969; she was Miss Brittany then, but never competed in the national pageant, for reasons that are made clear later in the film.
At the hotel where the reunion/photo shoot takes place, we see the former beauty queens, all in their late sixties and early seventies, yet still elegant and beautiful, and we cringe when the 20-something photographer speaks to them condescendingly, giving them instructions like, “Head back to avoid the double chin,” and telling them that the theme of the calendar will be “Life Goes On!” That scene complements well one in which Bettie, on one of her first road trip diversions, falls in bed with a much younger man who looks at her carefully and tells her, “You must have been stunning.” Later scenes find other, less kind men calling Bettie old and fat. To hear such comments made to Deneuve, the breathtaking ingénue of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the beautiful, sexy woman of Belle de Jour, seems incongruent, and particularly harsh. That Bettie responds to each comment, as well as the to the ingratiating photographer’s words, with cool grace and resolve is a testament to Deneuve’s exceptional screen presence and remarkable acting ability.
The film, then, beyond its superficial what-will-she-do-next storyline, works well as an achingly poignant meditation on beauty and aging. Deneuve’s awareness of who she is – as both an actress and as a cultural icon – fits well with Bettie’s discovery that no matter what has happened previously in life, it is never too late to move forward. Life goes on, indeed, and yes, She Goes along with it.
And if Deneuve’s acting isn’t enough to spark your interest in the movie, here’s one final tidbit that might: Rufus Wainwright’s hauntingly beautiful song “This Love Affair” is played during the film. Kudos to Bercot for that brilliantly apt choice. Watching Deneuve stare mournfully out her car window as Wainwright’s plaintive voice sings prophetically, “I don’t know what I’m doing/I don’t know what I’m saying/… So I guess that I’m going” is one of the most moving, lovely experiences to be had at the cinema so far this year.
On My Way opens today at the Clay Theater in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. In French with English subtitles.