Road movies have their rules, and road movies about old people definitely have their rules. Films from “Harry and Tonto” to “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska” start with cantankerous characters happy to be on their own and gradually reintroduce them to life through funny-sad family conflicts and the kindness/weirdness of strangers. “On My Way” just adds a few wrinkles: It’s from France, the main character is a woman rather than a man, and she’s played by the ageless, elegant Catherine Deneuve, doing her level best to look like a wreck. In all other respects, Emmanuelle Bercot’s amusingly rambling drama hits the expected rest stops with a Gallic shrug and a lot of Gauloises.
When we meet her, Bettie (Denueve) has made it to her 60s without quite managing to grow up. She runs a village restaurant in Brittany but lives with her aging mother (Claude Gensac), a meddlesome pixie. Widowed, with a grown daughter (Camille) who doesn’t much care for her, Bettie has been in a dead-end affair with the unseen and married Etienne, and when he leaves both her and his wife for a younger woman, the mistress snaps. Bettie walks out of her restaurant during the lunch rush, gets in her car, and just drives away.
This is a great development for the movie, since cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman captures the summer back roads of rural France with humming, verdant colors. Bettie’s initial escapades knock her further off balance, especially as regards the small-town nightclub stud (Paul Hamy) who has a thing for older women.
But then the daughter calls, needing a bailout: Can Bettie drive her young grandson Charly (Nemo Schiffman) to stay with his paternal grandfather (Gerard Garouste) while the daughter takes a job? The kid’s a ham in a good way, and while there are the expected arguments and runnings off, the bond between immature grandma and old-soul grandson takes root.
If this were a Hollywood movie — and it may well yet be — there would be predictable story beats, tidy life lessons, and a juicy role for Jane Fonda. By contrast, Bercot and her co-writer, Jerome Tonnerre, open up the clichés and let them breathe; they’re still clichés but they have an appealing roughness. And you can tell Deneuve is relishing the chance to play not a great beauty, not a national legend, but a simple, human basket case — a woman who has been her own worst enemy for so long that she’s ready to give up the fight.
Actually, Bettie turns out to have been a small-town beauty queen: She won the Miss Brittany crown in the late 1960s and could have gone for Miss France if a car accident (and, it’s hinted, the death of a youthful lover) hadn’t intervened. “On My Way” finds its most original moments when Charly cajoles his grandmother into attending a reunion of the pageant also-rans for a calendar photo shoot. As Bercot’s camera darts from conversation to conversation, from the aging Miss Gascogne to Miss Picardie to Miss Centre-Ouest, it’s as though we’re seeing a multitude of Betties. Some have accepted the passing of time, some remain stuck in petty rivalries, and each is a mirror for our overwhelmed adventurer.
“On My Way” ends on a note of tart sentimentality, with the reestablishment of family ties and a man for Bettie — probably the one she deserves — rather than letting her roll on in bracing independence or tragic isolation. Fine, maybe she has earned it, or Deneuve has, or we have. Longtime fans of French cinema in general and the star in particular may smile at the opening shots of village shop windows, as if Bercot were consciously evoking 1964’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” one of the most magical films of Deneuve’s youth. There, everyone sang their dialogue and the colors glowed like overripe fruit. “On My Way” explores what happens after the singing has stopped and only the trees appear to be in bloom. It still finds room for new growth.