A middle-aged former Miss Brittany needs more than a cigarette break in “On My Way,” a road movie from actress and occasional helmer Emmanuelle Bercot that’s constructed entirely around a tender, generous performance from star Catherine Deneuve. Though the journey-movie template allows for too many digressions and a somewhat cobbled-together narrative, the pic also derives some individuality from its occasional detours into craziness. Though the almost two-hour result could easily lose a reel or two, this unhurried dramedy could interest older Francophile auds, including Stateside, to which Cohen Media Group snapped up rights.
Recently onscreen as an actress in “Polisse,” Bercot has so far focused on young women in her directorial features (“Backstage,” telepic “Student Services”). For her latest helming effort, she has chosen a more mature protag: Bettie (Deneuve, in a role written specifically for her), an almost-broke restaurant owner from a small town in Brittany, her sole claim to fame being her 1969 win in a regional beauty contest.
Her tiny provincial world comes apart when the man she loves (never seen) takes up a with a hot 25-year-old, prompting Bettie to take a break during the lunch service at her restaurant and drive off in her dirty-brown Mercedes to buy cigarettes, even though she quit smoking years ago.
The cigarette break turns into an odyssey of several days, with the genre’s standard eccentrics popping up left and right — an early comic highlight is a meeting with a young, bearded man (Paul Hamy) who’s totally into Bettie and takes her to a hotel for a wild night. Eventually the film arrives at the meat of the story, when Bettie’s estranged daughter, Muriel (monomonikered singer Camille), asks her to drive Muriel’s son, Charly (Nemo Schiffman), to his paternal grandfather (painter-artist Gerard Garouste), who lives in the southeast of France.
The early going is kind of an oppressive mess, even in its mise-en-scene and camerawork, making it all the believable that Bettie would want to just drive off and seek solace in the great outdoors. The various men she meets are mostly played by non-pro actors, lending the story a pleasingly raw texture that effectively casts Deneuve as a fish out of water.
But the random encounters are too many and too drawn out before the film finally settles into its tale of an unwilling grandmother and the 11-year-old grandson who doesn’t know her, forced to drive several hundred miles together without killing each other. Even then, the story is frequently interrupted by such interludes as an improbable reunion of 1969 beauty queens at a fancy lakeside resort.
“On My Way” is at its best when it concentrates on Bettie’s attempts to deal with the challenges thrown her way. Her ingrained sense of propriety has to battle her growing realization that she needs to break free of her old habits, which gives the character (and the film) a somewhat schizophrenic feel, though some of Bettie’s more out-there moments, as when she ends one night in a bar, drunk and wearing a huge pink wig, are also what set the film apart from other road-trip movies and Deneuve’s recent starrers.
Deneuve could play this role in her sleep, making it all the more gratifying that she’s fully tuned in to the material. Little Schiffman, the son of Bercot and d.p. Guillaume Schiffman (“The Artist”) is a natural and thankfully comes off as more than just another cute, wisecracking kid, though he does deliver some of the film’s best lines.
Apart from the editing, the pic is unassumingly put together, though some of the car scenes in were clearly shot in the studio.