When Odysseus Met Narcissus…, by David Bax
It’s very difficult to think of Catherine Deneuve as an everywoman. It’s simply not there in the way she carries herself. That’s why the opening scenes of Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way might trigger a bit of cognitive dissonance. Deneuve’s Bettie is leading an unremarkable life. She’s a widow, living with her mother above the small restaurant she owns in her small town and carrying on an affair with a man who doesn’t love her. When that life starts to crack, though, it comes as a bit of a relief to realize that she’s not the average and relatable lady she seems. She is, in fact, a former beauty queen who, try as she might, has never adjusted to life after the age of nineteen, which is why her reactions are so childish. Compared to Sebastián Lelio’s recent Gloria, in which the title character handled later-life troubles with maturity, Bettie’s pouty tantrums can best be characterized by that reliable teen watchword, angst. When she storms out of her restaurant and her life, driving off her in car to no destination in particular, Bercot attempts to substitute actual emotion with the music of every high school drama club’s favorite singer, Rufus Wainwright. This scheme is unsuccessful because Bercot chooses a song that is, like all Rufus Wainwright songs, terribly cloying.
From here, On My Way becomes something of an impromptu road movie. The simple desire for a cigarette leads Bettie to her first few stops. Then she meanders around the French countryside for a bit until a phone call from her daughter comes through, asking Bettie to look after her twelve-year-old grandson for a bit. As a result, the second half of On My Way turns into a buddy road trip comedy, like if Bob Hope were a woman in her sixties and Bing Crosby were a tween boy.
The early scenes in which Bettie is repeatedly frustrated in her attempts to acquire a cigarette take on an amusingly surreal impossibility, like a smoker’s Odyssey (or, perhaps, The Discreet Charm of the Nicotine). The point, though, seems to be that this woman can’t do anything on her own. Her repeated bumming of cigarettes is echoed later in the multiple scenes of her asking strangers for directions. Once again, Bettie is as a child. Indeed, when she goes to bed with a younger man, we learn that she is even afraid of the dark.
That brief tryst represents the middle section of a trio of increasingly younger men Bettie encounters. The first is an old man who offers to roll her a cigarette. He is closer to Bettie in age than any other male we’ve encountered so far but her impatience with the slowness of his fingers, gnarled by time, illustrates that she feels no kinship with the senior citizen set. The second is the one night stand who seems to delight and frighten her in equal measure. And then, finally, she meets her equal in the petulance of a misunderstood child, the grandson she hasn’t seen in years.
The morning after the aforementioned sexual encounter, the young man admits to Bettie, “I tried to imagine you young.” It’s clear that Bettie has been doing the same, fighting age by trying to recapture the irresponsibility of youth. As a teen, she was Miss Brittany 1969. Now, someone is trying to get all the regional pageant winners from that year back together for a calendar. Bettie is at first resistant to it, perhaps scared to come so close to the evidence of over forty years’ time. Eventually, though, she decides to attend, with the boy in tow. Maybe it’s because she hopes to get some of that glory back or maybe it’s because they’re offering a free night at a hotel and she could desperately use it.
Her initial fear about the photo shoot may have been well-founded, as it does not go well. But it also may be the beginning of her catharsis. The film is unsubtle in its message that all things will end but that new things will also begin. It’s also rather inelegant in its repeated use of the clichéd phrase, “life goes on.” Though the acting is competent and it is refreshing to see middle class people with money problems respectfully depicted, On My Way’s familiar affirmations ultimately succeed in making it the one thing Deneuve herself could never be. Ordinary.