A floundering film salvaged at the last minute by a gifted young actor.
On My Way
What’s surprising about On My Way, a latter-life crisis road trip film starring Catherine Deneuve, is that the film flounders and fumbles while the French living legend is alone at the helm. Only when a talented young actor (Nemo Schiffman) tags along on her directionless journey does the film begin to find its way and bare its soul.
Deneuve plays Bettie, a cool-headed former beauty queen in her 60’s who runs a struggling restaurant in Brittany. When her domineering mother (who she lives with) tells Bettie that her lover has taken to a younger woman, she carries the heartbreak with her to work the next day and, during a hectic lunch service, impulsively flees the scene in her car. What begins as a desperate search for a cigarette turns into an unplanned road trip, with Bettie making a series of random stops along the French countryside, sharing brief encounters with a handful of kindly small-town strangers.
The first half of the film benefits from director Emmanuelle Bercot’s proficiency with a moving camera, gliding alongside and around Deneuve (as beautiful as ever) in silky smooth long shots that match the actress’ elegance. Unfortunately, what she captures Deneuve doing isn’t all that compelling: We know she’s distraught because her romantic life has bit the dust, but because we never see the man in question, it’s hard to latch onto Bettie’s sorrow. In a sequence set to Rufus Wainwright’s melodramatic ballad “This Love Affair”, Bettie drives around aimlessly under a grey sky, biting her ring finger in despair, as the camera soars above and sits on the hood of the car. This is meant to be a rock-bottom moment for her, but with so little information about exactly what it is she’s lost, the scene serves little purpose.
Bettie’s interactions with the randoms she meets in the film’s first act range from touching (a conversation with a sweet store owner who lets her in from the pouring rain); to funny (a one night stand with a dumb young stud); to awkward (a chat with an old man with battered fingers who rolls cigarettes so slowly Bettie nearly bursts in frustration). Deneuve is game as always, but these little pit stops, while well crafted, don’t strengthen the narrative or add layers to Bettie as a character. The episodic arrangement of these uneventful scenes stagnates the film for too long.
Bettie’s estranged, spiteful daughter Muriel (popular chanteuse Camille) begs her to pick up her 11-year-old son Charly (Schiffman), and drive him to his paternal grandfather’s house, hundreds of miles away. She says yes, to Muriel’s surprise. Bettie and her wise-ass grandson are at first combative, but their relationship slowly develops into something quite precious, reinvigorating the film with sharp humor and, most importantly, an emotional foundation.
Most entertaining are the bits when Charly is trying his damnedest to make Bettie’s life a living nightmare, but to no avail: She’s got too much experience with her unruly daughter under her belt to fall for his tactics. At one point, Charly runs away in a fit of rage, only to be tracked down soon thereafter by a frantic Bettie. She apologizes and pleads with him to get in the car. The second he plops down in the passenger seat, she slaps him across the face and says calmly, “Now we’re even.”
Deneuve is such a treasure that it’s hard to feel regretful watching her work, even when it’s as unremarkable as the first half of On My Way. She’s an actor of refined subtlety, but she isn’t given much to work with until Schiffman, a worthy partner, arrives to give her the support Bercot’s script fails to provide.