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On My Way
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by Jay Seaver

"A trip with a surprisingly well-planned itinerary."
4 stars

At one point in "On My Way" ("Elle s'en va" in French), Catherine Deneuve's Bettie looks at the kid singing some English-language song in the passenger seat, then at the freeway outside the window, and grumbles that she feels like she's in America. It's a funny bit that nevertheless makes me wonder if the road trip, and therefore the books and movies chronicling same, is a particularly American phenomenon, seldom seen in countries that connect their urban areas with quality passenger rail systems. A bit of a shame, if so, because "On My Way" is a fine example of the freedom that sort of story brings.

Bettie, being French - Miss Brittany for 1969, in fact - didn't really intend to go on a road trip, of course. Frazzled from running a restaurant that is starting to run worrisomely late on its bills, she is further stressed out when he mother Annie (Claude Gensac) makes sure Bettie know that her longtime lover has finally left his wife, but for a 25-year-old girl, and take a quick drive to clear her head. And keeps driving, because this is the sort of situation that makes one start smoking again, but it's hard to by cigarettes on Sunday except at a bar. Then... well, is the next day, and her daughter Muriel (Camille) calls, asking if she will come pick up her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) and bring him to stay with his grandfather (Gérard Garouste) while she travels for a job interview. And then...

Well, a number of other things happen. Bettie does not particularly have adventures as she makes her way around her corner of France - what happens probably doesn't even rise to the level of misadventures - but she does have encounters. Some are very brief, such as the people at the food truck who let her charge her phone, and some go on for long enough to form some sort of a bond, if a temporary one. In many cases, things seem to go easier with lesser connections, but there is generally someone worth meeting at each stop and a nifty little scene as Bettie stop and speaks with them.

And as she does, filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot slowly teases the arc of Bettie's life out, the tale of a beauty who intimidated the other Miss France contestants when she was 19 but still finds herself living in the very house where she was born in her sixties. Bercot and co-writer Jérôme Tonnerre seed this story in details, offhand comments, and anecdotes that seem to have some other point entirely, and it is quite an impressive job in a number of ways, from how inserting a still of young Catherine Deneuve into a series of images from her small town now hints at how she's tied herself to her past to how Bercot takes care to show that the city and fame are not necessarily what Bettie had been missing. Like a lot of road trip movies, On My Way is a bit of a love letter to these places, so telling Bettie's story means carefully separating the general and the specific.

It obviously takes good work from Deneuve as well, and she doesn't disappoint. She spend most of her time portraying Bettie as seeming a little further from a breakdown than she actually is, but there's still a bit of fragility to her, even if Deneuve is now somewhat more solidly built than she was when she first burst on the scene. It's kind of fun to see her and the hair & makeup team play with this some, recognizing how older people who were attractive in their youth often try to hold on to the same ways of looking good only to seem mismatched and doing Deneuve up to reflect how much she's embracing the present. Not that she necessarily needs this help; it just helps to reinforce how well she reflects what is going on both on the surface and underneath as she plays off the rest of the cast.

It's mostly done one-by-one, so everybody gets a chance to shine. Nemo Schiffman (Bercot's son) is the one many will remember; the kid playing the 11-year-old Charly is genuinely hilarious, even when he's just running around the background of a scene, but he also handles weightier scenes well. Pop star Camille is also a surprisingly good fit; even if she doesn't necessarily resemble Deneuve that much, she manages to capture mannerisms and otherwise come across as a good match. Gérard Garouste manage to make a big transition for his character work, while Claude Gensac certainly makes it feel like Annie and Bettie have been at this forever.

It's an impressive film, the sort that looks plotless and vague on first glance but is impressively constructed on closer examination. It follows the winding path of a real or cinematic road trip, and like the good ones, arrives at just the right place.

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originally posted: 03/05/14 12:27:03
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