On My Way (Elle s'en va): Berlin Review

On My Way - film still
Deneuve gets down, and a bit dirty, in this uneven but likeable French dramedy.

Catherine Deneuve hits the road in this rocky third feature from actress-filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot.

BERLIN -- A bumpy and boisterous road trip/family dramedy/whatchamacallit, Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way (Elle s’en va) stars Catherine Deneuve as an icy ex-beauty queen whose late-life crisis sends her out on the highway and into a slew of episodic adventures that have her smoking, drinking, and, on a few occasions, doing the Belle de jour. Unruly in its early stages, the film manages to find its rhythm when the story transforms into an endearing, Harold and Maude-type two-hander, although this wild and at times uproarious ride certainly takes its time to get there.

Already picked up by Cohen Media Group ahead of its premiere in competition at the Berlinale, Way should easily travel to Euro and Francophile markets, where viewers may want to witness the sight of Deneuve playing largely against type, slumming it up with trashy country bumpkins and trying to find herself in the process.

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This at least is the m.o. for much of the film’s first act, when bistrot owner, Bettie (Deneuve), learns from her nagging mom (Claude Gensac) that an unseen lover has flown the coop -- an event that sends her off on a frenzied drive which doesn’t stop until a few days later. Crossing the bucolic fields of Brittany and slowing down only to bum cigarettes from a weathered farmer, she eventually finds her way to a dive bar called Le Ranch (aptly named), where she gets wasted on Caipirinhas and drunkenly cougars it up with a local boy toy (Paul Hamy, hilarious).

It’s hard to see what exactly Bercot and co-writer Jerome Tonnerre (The Women on the 6th Floor) are after in these early scenes, which feel unwieldy and half-improvised, playing off the contrast between a legendary actress and lots of unknown regulars, whose Breton accents are thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. Although there’s definitely some humor here -- especially in Bettie’s tryst with Marco -- there’s also a sense of confusion that’s aggravated by erratic handheld camerawork from the usually slick Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist).

Just when the film seems like it’s sliding into a tiresome performance piece -- the bar scene actually has Deneuve wearing a giant pink afro wig -- Bettie gets a call from her single-mom daughter, Muriel (pop-folk singer Camille), who asks her to pick up wisecracking son, Charly (newcomer Nemo Schiffman), and drive him across France to the boy’s paternal grandfather (Gerard Garouste).

From their very first encounter, the chemistry between Deneuve and Schiffman fils is evident, with the former’s plush austerity facing up against the youngster’s lively and badass behavior. While the two are not quite as crazed as Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in the Hal Ashby film -- they’re also not lovers, thank god-- there’s a similar sense of chaos and abandon, an anything goes attitude that makes their scenes surprising and often quite funny.

They soon end up at a lakeside hotel, where fellow beauty pageant alumni are gathered for a reunion (Little Miss Sunshine, anyone?), during which we learn a few details about Bettie’s past, including why she never made it to the Miss France finals. Although these revelations don’t really explain her deep emotional detachment from her own daughter, they do help spearhead the narrative as it moves along to its very French climax, complete with a picturesque country house, plenty of wine, rabbits, family feuds and, bien evidemment, some heavily implied lovemaking.

Despite the fact that Bercot -- who co-wrote Maiwenn’s Polisse and seems to share that filmmaker’s penchant for narrative pandemonium -- dabbles in the cliches of many a Gallic movie here, there’s a freshness to some of the storytelling, while the performances tend to feel raw and lived in. Indeed, Deneuve has rarely seemed so unhinged, and although Bettie’s predicaments are never handled in a thorough enough way, she becomes a character you want to root for, even if you don’t always know why.

To smooth over some snags, including an overstuffed 113-minute running time, the director tosses in catchy tunes from the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Grizzly Bear and The Divine Comedy. These choices ultimately help bolster the pace of an effort that’s as erratic as it is energetic, in a film that’s much more bouillabaisse than haute cuisine.

Production companies: Fidelite Films

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nemo Schiffman, Gerard Garouste, Camille, Claude Gensac

Director: Emmanuelle Bercot

Screenwriters: Emanuelle Bercot, Jerome Tonnerre

Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier

Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman

Production designer: Eric Barboza

Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne

Editor: Julien Leloup

Sales Agent: Elle Driver

No rating, 113 minutes