★★★★ - STUFF
- A deceptively insightful sex and relationships comedy -
In 1878, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, trying to clear his head of a love affair with an American married woman, set out on a 12-day walk through a ravishingly lovely chunk of the French countryside.
Stevenson commissioned a sleeping bag – which were not really a thing, back in the day – and bought a donkey to carry his belongings.
The donkey, Modestine, turned out to be almost comically disinclined to move so much as a metre without being fed, cajoled, or just plain threatened. But Stevenson, via his classic account of the trip, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, pretty much invented a sub-genre of travel writing that still infests the best-seller lists today.
And his trek has become quite famous, with thousands of book lovers following in Stevenson's footsteps to this day, from the village of Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, a distance of some 225 kms, on what has become known as Chemin de Stevenson.
Unfortunately for 40-something school teacher Antoinette, her boyfriend Vladimir is one of the hordes who has decided to walk the trail, with his wife and young daughter. And he will be doing so during the very week that Antoinette believed he would instead be alone with her.
So, Antoinette does what any spurned lover would do. She buys a ticket, hires a donkey and sets out to also navigate the walk. Hoping, or not hoping – she is never entirely clear on the point – to run into Vladimir and his family along the way.
Writer/director Caroline Vignal (Girlfriends) does many things very well in Antoinette in the Cévennes, but her greatest trick is surely in taking this potentially queasy material – Antoinette is shown as little more than a stalker in the film's early scenes – and orchestrating its transmogrification into a deceptively insightful comedy of sex and relationships, as Antoinette fends off admirers, makes peace with her demons and re-establishes control over her own destiny, via the unlikely, but superb metaphor of a bloody-minded and magnificently recalcitrant donkey.
I hope there is never an English remake of Antoinette in the Cévennes. But, if there has to be, at least please call it Eat, Bray, Shove.
Antoinette's journey, like Stevenson's, is a movement away from heartbreak and towards acceptance. But, unlike the philosophical Stevenson, Antoinette somehow gets there via a headlong pursuit of humiliation and disappointment. The difference, maybe, is that Stevenson's mistress Frances was worth pursuing, so he wisely didn't. But Antoinette's Vladimir really isn't worth any effort at all, so she risks everything for him. No, I don't entirely understand what I just wrote either.
The leads here are uniformly terrific. With Laure Calamy (Call My Agent!) as Antoinette and Olivia Côte as Vladimir's clear-eyed wife Eléonor especially, relishing roles written with real wit – not just laughs – at their hearts. The film's – and Antoinette's – fulcrum lays within one brief scene, as Eléonor tells Antoinette a few home truths about what drives Vladimir. None of which, we imagine, Vladimir is aware of himself.
As an exploration of heartbreak and redemption, a warm but relentless excavation of human fragility and as a celebration of the immutable magic of women's friendships with each other, Antoinette in the Cévennes might seem like a slight and mostly weightless movie, but its heart reaches all the way down.
And Stevenson? He eventually followed Frances to San Francisco, to find that she had finally divorced. They married, raised Frances’ three children and travelled the world together, as Stevenson's fame as a writer grew.
They even visited Aotearoa. Although the locals still referred to it as “New Zealand” back then.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Antoinette in the Cévennes is now playing at Light House Cinema!
(In French with English subtitles)