Unhinged by crises both monetary and amorous, a provincial Frenchwoman tells the employees at her restaurant, "I'll be back." Then she takes off in her ancient rattletrap with no escape plan beyond an illicit smoke and a drive to clear her addled head. Turns out she'll be gone a while.
Yes, there's a road movie in Bettie's cards. Yes, there will be formative ordeals. And yes, the payoff will be uplift, along with one of those toothsome al fresco country lunches where Mediterranean types wave their arms around and argue in friendly fashion.
But that payoff will be hard won. And more to the point, when did we last see a road picture with a heroine who's past 60, played in fine knockabout form by none other than Catherine Deneuve, ice goddess?
To the best of my recollection, Deneuve hasn't been called a whore onscreen since 1967's Belle de Jour. Emmanuelle Bercot's On My Way is a whole other ball of wax: Written expressly for Deneuve, this ribald comedy means to knock the actress clean off her coolly aloof perch. And she gives every appearance of loving it.
Bettie, who's hardly a vision in beige shirt and tan slacks, was never actually a hooker or anything like. She's had a checkered love life, sure, and it gets a full airing, but only to underline the fact that she's an unreconstructed child who lives with her meddlesome maman (Claude Gensac) and still pines for a no-good married lover.
Bettie's odyssey through France's leafy Loire valley will grow her up, but along the way she endures acts of cruelty and kindness more commonly seen in some cheerfully crass British working-class romp through Sheffield or Manchester. Accordingly, Bettie will end up being a calendar girl of sorts, but not before waking up with a hangover and a barely clad stud several decades her junior, who will tell her, "You must have been stunning."
She was, and is, though these days Deneuve is more stately than statuesque, and looks at once amused and bemused at being thrust into physical comedy. She has stuff to rue as well: Once, long ago — on the cusp of the women's movement that paved the way for female road movies — Bettie was Miss Brittany, and in the running for Miss France. It didn't work out, and if On My Way is Bettie's story, it might also be Deneuve's, or that of any woman whose run as a beauty has come to an end, and who must find other resources to bring to a life full of grown-up risk.
If Deneuve's looks no longer stop us cold, that frees her from her duties as a professional icebox, and frees us up to move with Bettie as she grows up. A couple of hysterical tantrums from her loser daughter (nicely played by singer-songwriter Camille) make it clear that Bettie was never much of a parent herself. Granted a second chance with her precocious but vulnerable grandson (Nemo Schiffman, a little of whose undeniable charm goes a long way) on a trip across country to his paternal grandfather's house, Bettie doesn't just mature. She also lightens up.
Comedy breathes a little heavy in On My Way, and the ending is entirely to be expected. But the movie has a soundtrack full of pop delights and a loose-limbed way of making itself up as it goes along. Sometimes the ad-libbing feels like a drag, but it also makes room for grace notes of bittersweet insight. In the rundown cottage of a kindly villager in his nineties, Bettie champs at the bit like a restless teenager while he rolls her a cigarette in his bloated old hands — and almost misses an astonishing admission that has shaped the old man's life. In that lovely moment, On My Way more than earns its keep.