A road trip that takes a middle-aged restaurateur from disenchantment to prospective happiness is the subject of Emmanuelle Bercot’s loosely structured, sporadically engaging film, which serves primarily as a star vehicle for French screen icon Catherine Deneuve but also features some pleasant supporting turns, particularly from the director’s young son Nemo Schiffman.
Deneuve plays Bettie, a former beauty queen (Miss Brittany of 1969) who finds her life unraveling. Her restaurant is on the brink of bankruptcy, and her long affair collapses when the man dumps her for a younger woman. Meanwhile at home she suffers the querulous demands of her aged mother Annie (Claude Gensac). Feeling trapped, she spontaneously jumps in the car and drives off, with no destination in mind.
But she has decided to take up smoking again, and the search for cigarettes leads her on an adventurous journey, though one with plenty of rough spots. She winds up at a roadside bar, where she gets monumentally drunk and dons a pink fright wig before going off for the night with a roguish thug named Marco (Paul Hamy), who the following morning offers the ungentlemanly observation that Bettie must have once been very beautiful. Her other encounters have an equally discursive, aimless quality, emphasizing the fact that Bettie is at a crossroads in her life in which all the directions are unpromising.
That changes when she gets a pleading phone call from her long-estranged daughter Muriel (Camille), asking her to drive her eleven-year old son Charly (Schiffman) to his grandfather’s. She agrees with surprising enthusiasm, and even though the trip to pick the kid up brings more unplanned delays (she arrives late, after Muriel has already departed for a new job), the inevitable process of her and the boy bonding as they drive several hundred miles together begins.
This section of the film might have gone completely off track had the chemistry between Deneuve and Schiffman not worked, and if the increasingly affectionate relationship had been drawn in too cute a fashion. As it is, Schiffman is a winning scene-stealer, but he can also handle the moments when Charly is obstinate or obnoxious, and Deneuve matches him beat for beat. There are digressions in this section as well—notably a side trip to the reunion of the 1969 contest competitors, where Charly becomes the darling of the aging women while Bettie suffers a medical emergency—but overall the central pairing is so agreeable that the film skirts the perils of saccharine potholes.
At this point enters Alain (Gerard Garouste), who agrees—none too happily at first—to have Bettie accompany him and Charly back to his estate. Alain is the mayor of his village, and engaged in a tough election to boot, but inevitably he and Bettie finds that they have things in common, and Muriel’s unexpected arrival adds to a familial feel that ends things on an upbeat note.
But if, as in so many road movies, the destination is foreordained, “On My Way” offers many pleasures getting there—particularly Deneuve, who remains luminous at seventy even when disheveled, and the back-and-forth between her and Schiffman, who never becomes just another precocious sitcom child. One can imagine a more lustrous take on the French countryside than Guillaume Schiffman’s rather workmanlike cinematography affords, but that would probably have been at odds with the picture’s gruff manner, and the absence of an intrusive music score—the preference is for pop tunes—falls into the same category.
The result is a pleasant chance to spend some time with a screen icon, and well as with a tyke you won’t find insufferable.