I’m a sucker for road movies. When the person taking to the road is played by Catherine Deneuve, that’s all the more reason to take the trip. In “On My Way,” she plays Bettie, a former beauty queen – Miss Brittany, to be exact – who lives in a small town with her mother and runs a failing bistro.
A widow – her husband choked on a chicken bone decades ago – she has just learned that her longtime lover has run off with a 25-year-old. So Bettie decides to take up smoking again, except that she doesn’t have any cigarettes. All the stores are closed on Sunday so she ends up driving through the rural landscape in search of smokes. A quick trip turns into an emotional odyssey, as she keeps coming up with fresh reasons not to return home.
One of the things I like about road movies is that they are often unabashedly formless (or at least they cleverly feign formlessness). Director and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot doesn’t go in for a lot of plot, and the film’s one-thing-after-another trajectory, at least for a while, is engagingly shaggy. When Bettie’s high-strung, estranged daughter, Muriel (played by the singer Camille), calls upon her mother to pick up her 11-year-old son, Charly (Nemo Schiffman, Bercot’s son), and drive him hundreds of miles to the home of his paternal grandfather (Gerard Garouste), the movie becomes more focused – but no less engaging.
That’s because Bettie is not some doddering woebegone grandma and Charly, one of the more convincing preteens I’ve ever seen in a movie – which is to say, he’s both amazingly immature and amazingly precocious – is more than her match. Bettie is at a stage in her life when very little fazes her. Even the loss of her lover doesn’t really send her over the edge; it just sends her on the road. Without her conscious awareness, she is looking for a way to be happy, and she’s worldly enough to know that, especially at her age, happiness comes in small doses.
The entire film can be seen as a meditation on aging. One of its best scenes comes early on, when Bettie is taken in by an old roadside farmer who rolls a cigarette for her with fingers so arthritic they can hardly move. At first impatient with him, she soon sees that the man, who lives alone, wants to talk about himself. (Like many of the characters, he is played by a nonactor.) He tells her about his fiancée who died very young and made him promise to never marry. It’s a great moment that instantly extends the film’s horizon.
Deneuve was 70 when she made this film, and Bercot draws on everything we know about her as an actress and as an icon. This can be a risky ploy – icons tend to be boring on screen – but Deneuve never plays the grande dame. There is nothing divalike about her in this film. When she has a hookup early on with a young man (Paul Hamy) she meets in a noisy bar, he tells her afterward that she must have been a great beauty when she was young, that when they made love he had imagined how she must once have looked, and we watch as the casual, unintended cruelty of his remark sinks in. She accepts what he says with a kind of bewildered assent.
There is a detour in the trip that, from a purely dramatic point of view, could be dispensed with, and yet I’m glad Bercot kept it in. Bettie joins a publicized reunion of 1969 regional beauty contest winners at a lakeside resort. We can see that, for many of the women, their long-ago victory was a great highlight. For Bettie, the situation is more complicated. She sees her beauty as something that was conferred upon her rather than asked for. She has always been content to live small.
Bercot has said in interviews that she was interested in answering the question, How come such a beautiful woman didn’t manage to have an exceptional life? The answer is contained in the question: It’s because, for Bettie, the exceptional resides in the ordinary. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)