A rom-com, a buddy movie, a tale of misadventure with literary antecedents, the story of an impulsive woman on a slow-paced road trip, Antoinette In The Cévennes has a disarming double act at its centre: Call My Agent! star Laure Calamy and a donkey called Patrick.
For French writer-director Caroline Vignal, the initial inspiration was all about the location, the hilly landscape of the Cévennes, in south-central France. She has always enjoyed walking; several years ago, she took a short trip in the area with her young daughter, then six years old, and to keep her occupied, she and her partner decided to enlist a donkey as a companion.
The set-up, she recalls, “was like it is in the film. We walked and we met lots of people. All that gave me the idea of doing something that took place in this area.” The notion stayed with her for a while, but something was missing. “I had the ingredients, but I didn’t have a story.” It wasn’t until she read Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 memoir, Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes, that something clicked.
It was the tone more than anything else, she says. “The relationship between the writer and his donkey, Modestine, is described as if it were a romantic comedy. At first they can’t stand each other, little by little they get to know each other, and by the end, when they have to separate, it’s a real wrench.”
Stevenson gave her a point of departure. “The rest I invented.” She discovered subsequently, reading a biography of the author, that there was an intriguing background to his journey. “In his book he doesn’t say anything about it, but he was actually heading into the Cévennes to take his mind off a break-up”, a detail that’s neatly incorporated into the movie.
Vignal juggles a range of influences and inspirations within a deceptively straightforward episodic narrative. The title character, Antoinette (Calamy) is a primary school teacher who is having an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her pupils. He had promised they would go away together during the holidays, then calls it off at the last minute, telling her that he has to spend the time with his wife and daughter. Impulsively, Antoinette books the same trip that he’s taking with his family, with no real thought of the consequences.
As she created her central character, the reckless, candid, ebullient Antoinette, Vignal says she asked herself, “Will people want to spend the film with a woman who’s having an affair with a married man? At one point my producer said to me, ‘be careful, all the women who’ve been betrayed will hate her’ … How do I make it that they’ll like her in spite of this?” There will also be people in the audience who might identify with Antoinette’s situation; either way, Vignal hopes, viewers will be struck first of all by the character’s heedlessness, then see her differently over the course of the film, recognising moments of vulnerability, absurdity and generosity as well as appreciating the comic elements of the situation. “Gradually, we begin to be touched by her. And of course, the choice of the actress is very important.”
In her first leading role, Calamy brings a disarming, adventurous spirit to Antoinette. She is a regular in supporting roles in French cinema and TV, familiar to Australian audiences as the effervescent assistant Noémie in Call My Agent!, the popular French TV series set in a talent agency.
Vignal says there’s something immensely appealing about Calamy as an actor, no matter what the part. “I think that Laure unlocks something immediately sympathetic. If I had a colder actress, or one who kept more of a distance from her character, that might have been different.” The strength of the performance was recognised at this year’s Césars, France’s national movie awards; Antoinette In The Cévennes was nominated in eight categories, and Calamy won best actress.
Writing the screenplay, Vignal decided to tackle directly the issue of the audience’s response to Antoinette. There’s a scene at the beginning of the journey in which the character joins a group of fellow travellers, all couples, and is quite candid about the reason for her trip. Vladimir and his wife and child are nowhere to be seen, and Antoinette feels free to share her quest with others. There is a range of reactions to her story, but few are positive: they’re mostly taken aback by her frank admission.
It’s as if the people around the table represent the audience, Vignal says. But amidst the expressions of disbelief and hostility, there is one person who sees things differently. This is Claire, an older woman who gives words of encouragement, almost a kind of blessing. She’s played by Marie Rivière, best known for her work with Eric Rohmer, most memorably in The Green Ray (1986), in which she played Délphine, a solitary, idealistic young woman on holiday, drifting from one experience to another.
The Green Ray was an important film for Vignal and she feels that Rivière’s presence is almost talismanic in the movie. “It’s as if she’s a good fairy for Antoinette,” she says, “and she passes the baton to her”. And for those viewers who aren’t aware of The Green Ray, there’s still a moment of warmth and understanding rather than judgement.
The Green Ray was a reference point for Vignal, but there were others too, including Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli, as well as Reese Witherspoon’s guileless, engaging character in Legally Blonde. And she watched movies in which the characters spent time walking, to see how the rhythm of the activity affected the film.
Making a movie set principally outdoors, the weather was always a concern, says Vignal. “Often we had scenes that we had to shoot over more than one day, and I always feared that we would have good weather on one day, bad the next. We got out of it okay, but it was always very stressful.”
When it came to Calamy’s co-star, Patrick, two donkeys shared the role, “one who was very calm and did the more emotional scenes, and one who did the action scenes and was more like a stunt performer.”
Working with animal actors, she says, “the things that were difficult were the things that seemed as if they would be easy”. But she managed to capture almost everything she wanted, with a few small exceptions. “There’s a scene in Stevenson’s book in which he describes how slow she’s going and how often she stops, and he goes crazy. And then he realises that he has to walk next to her. If he’s a little bit ahead or a little bit behind, she stops. I wanted that in the film, but it never worked with that donkey.”
Antoinette In The Cévennes opens in selected cinemas on Thursday 8 April. Watch the trailer now: