It’s been exactly fifty years since Catherine Deneuve first charmed the parapluies off audiences in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, during which time the prolific international star has played everything from a murderous wallflower to a sexually frustrated housewife to a bisexual vampire. In recent years, however, Deneuve has settled into a series of roles shining a light upon more universal truths in ordinary lives. Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way (Elle s’en va) doesn’t present us with a fresh look at late-life disappointment, but it does provide another excellent illustration of just what a fine character actress Deneuve has morphed into.
You see it most in her eyes, which are never quite fixated on the action ahead of her character, Bettie. A despondent widow who lives with her unsympathetic mother (Claude Gensac) and can barely keep the seafood restaurant she manages afloat, Bettie hits the road for parts unknown after learning her lover has left her for a younger version. Bercot’s premise feels awfully by-the-numbers, so you need to look elsewhere from On My Way’s plotting for treats. But if you keep your eye on Deneuve, then you’ll find a trove full of them.
The thing about road movies is that the protagonist keeps encountering new people who act as audience surrogates; one-night-stands and helpful store managers keep providing Bettie with opportunities to divulge her personal history, which includes infidelity and a particularly rueful anecdote about her husband’s passing. Deneuve is particularly marvelous in this sequence, laughing as she details the situation, while her eyes betray entirely different emotions. Altogether, it’s a physically engaged performance. Watching her piece together the events of a drunken evening in the bed of a stranger, we can intuit the familiar stench of alcohol and shame she feels. On My Way, which played at the opening night of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema certainly knows how to use its leading lady.
Which is why it’s so frustrating that it only hits the expected plot points. Bercot and co-writer Jerome Tonnerre insist on cleaning up the mess that is Bettie’s life, so it introduces her ungrateful estranged daughter Muriel (played by singer Camille), who demands that her already AWOL mother drive across the country to help transplant grandson Charly (newcomer Nemo Schiffman) to the home of his paternal grandfather (Gerard Garouste). Typical one-step-forward-two-steps-back bonding ensues, and along the way Bettie – a past Miss Brittany pageant winner who never showed at the Miss France competition – attends a pageant reunion. The metaphor is clear; she’s facing her past, and allowing even more hidden secrets to be exposed. One wishes that this story didn’t feel as though it were written on auto-pilot.
And so, since there isn’t a lot of there there, the entire film becomes Deneuve, who demonstrates more than perhaps ever what a natural screen presence she can be. Every scowl, every eye roll, every downcast glance clues us in more and more to who Bettie is. And makes it so that when Bettie does smile, it feels that much more earned. By film’s end, we hope that perhaps Bettie is on her way to a better place. Heaven knows Deneuve is already right where she needs to be.
On My Way opens on March 14 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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