Road Rules

03.04.14

Emmanuelle Bercot, On My Way, 2014, color, sound, 113 minutes.


I’VE NEVER HEARD Catherine Deneuve laugh as much as she does in On My Way; then again, I’ve never seen her wear an enormous neon-pink clown wig or share the screen so effortlessly with a flamboyant eleven-year-old. Emmanuelle Bercot’s film, which opens this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” in New York, was written expressly for the icon, whose tobacco-deepened chortles reveal a looseness and vibrancy all too rarely tapped in the fifty years since she became a superstar in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Deneuve plays Bettie, a former beauty queen partial to subdued leopard-print blouses. Crowned Miss Brittany in 1969, she’s never left the region, running a bistro and living in the house she was born in with her mother. Shortly after learning that her longtime married lover has taken up with a twenty-five-year-old, Bettie walks out during the middle of the lunch rush, her head-clearing getaway soon turning into a nearly weeklong road trip through deepest rural France. Bettie’s desultory travels—involving pit stops in itty-bitty towns where an ancient, arthritic farmer hand-rolls her a cigarette and a group of hard-looking women invite her to share a beer at the only bar seemingly for hundreds of miles—account for much of the film’s easy charm. These scenes, which pair the most famous Frenchwoman in the world with nonprofessional actors, effervesce with their unpredictability, showing off Deneuve’s nimble give-and-take with these game first-timers. But the most exhilarating duet occurs between Deneuve and Nemo Schiffman (Bercot’s son), playing Bettie’s grandson, Charly, a melodramatic tween who belts out show tunes. Neophyte Schiffman’s formidable drama-queen energy gooses his fluid dynamic with Deneuve even further while never overshadowing his luminary costar.

If On My Way shows us new dimensions of a legendary actress, two other standouts in the “Rendez-Vous” lineup—Serge Bozon’s Tip Top and Axelle Ropert’s Miss and the Doctors—revitalize entire genres. Frequent collaborators, Ropert and Bozon cowrote the script for the latter’s La France (2007), a singular war movie/musical hybrid that celebrated 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier, in which Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain play internal-affairs officers summoned to investigate the death of an Algerian informant, audaciously balances slapstick—often deployed to excellent effect in the heroines’ unorthodox practices, both on the job and in the bedroom—with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.

Ropert’s film also has a remarkable way of making the most shopworn conventions seem dazzlingly fresh—a skill already on display in her first feature, The Wolberg Family (2009). Like that earlier movie, which astutely explores the thorny struggle of how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin, Ropert’s follow-up project also addresses blood ties. Set in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement, the home of the capital city’s rarely filmed Chinatown, Miss and the Doctors concerns two pediatrician brothers, Boris (Cédric Kahn) and Dimitri (Laurent Stoker). So close that they live in the same apartment complex and write prescriptions at desks positioned side by side, the siblings find their bonds tested when they both fall in love with the same woman, Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the single mother of one of their charges, a diabetic preteen girl. Yet this deceptively small project about a love triangle slowly reveals itself to be nothing less than an expansive, deeply compassionate look at universal dyads: physicians and patients, parents and children, immigrants and the native-born, the beloved and the loveless.

Melissa Anderson

“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–16, the IFC Center March 7–13, and BAMcinématek March 7–10. On My Way will be released in New York on March 14; Tip Top will be released later this year.