Bettie (Catherine Deneuve) is in her early sixties. Having run out of cigarettes, she climbs into her car and drives off, leaving her mother, customers and the employees of her Breton restaurant to fend for themselves. The shops are all shut and Bettie has no desire to return to her old life. She has just learned that her long-standing lover has gone off with a younger woman and living with her difficult mother is no picnic. Bettie decides to take a break and drives on. She gets to know her grandson and winds up with him at a picturesque hotel by the sea, in the midst of a reunion of French beauty queens from the year 1969.
There are no easy ages for actresses, alas—one of the many gender-based disparities of showbusiness economics—but there’s something especially dispiriting about the limited options afforded women as they enter their seventh and eighth decades. For every opportunity of the kind Michael Haneke offered Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, or Leos Carax gave Edith Scob in Holy Motors, there are others obliged to play the fool—the dotty, foul-mouthed grandmother, the cranky neighbour—and countless more whose phone never rings at all. Whose achievements are forgotten and whose names are slipping, hour by hour, into darkness.
Part of the reason, I’m convinced, resides less in the ordinary chauvinism of producers and studio heads (though the phrase 'Well, I wouldn’t fuck her’ reportedly still gets an awful lot of play in casting sessions), than with something more disquieting, and perhaps even harder to defend: our own unease with watching our stars age and wither before our eyes. Beguiled by the beauty of these men and women, offered up to us at the golden summit of their youth and power, it can be tough to watch the bloom fade from the rose—and thus be reminded of our own, implacable mortality.
I remember watching Jiri Menzel’s contribution to the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older: a beautifully edited montage of clips from the half-century career of Rudolf Hrusinsky, arguably the Czech Republic’s most popular actor. I recalled Hrusinsky from classics like Menzel’s own Capricious Summer (and in particular, the magnificent Larks on a String), but wouldn’t exactly call myself a diehard fan. Even so, watching him turn, in the space of just ten minutes, from the dashing young blade of 1938 to the white-haired old man of 1994, was little short of heartbreaking.
Which brings us to Catherine Deneuve. Who, probably more than any other living actress, represents not only her country’s cinema, but an equally lofty notion of French nationhood. As beloved by her people as Hrusinsky was by his, she’s been virtually synonymous with la cinema française since the mid-1960s, and was even selected as the model for busts and portraits of Marianne, the national symbol of French Republicanism. (Though amusingly, she’s been superceded—on stamps, at least—by Inna Shevchenko, frequently bare-breasted member of the Ukranian feminist group FEMEN, who has recently acquired the liberté of political asylum in France.)
Deneuve’s recent career has hardly been a disaster. She’s worked more or less continually, though few of the films have been great, and many of the directors have seemed unworthy of her. For someone who once collaborated with Buñuel and Polanski, with Truffaut and Demy, to co-star with Dany Boon in an Astérix and Obélix flick can only be regarded as something of a step down. (In fairness, one might note that her filmography is littered with more than its fair share of trash, and the list of major French directors with whom she’s never worked—Godard, Malle, Sautet, Assayas, to name just a few—is far longer than those with whom she did.)
there are too many clichés of the Quality French Film variety
Here she plays Bettie, a restaurant owner and onetime beauty queen, long past her prime, who, upon learning from her mother that her boyfriend has dumped her for a (much) younger woman, sets off on a road trip through Brittany—though not to track down her man, as we initially believe, but simply to cut loose and find herself. She starts smoking again, and drinking heavily, little acts of rebellion which culminate, before long, in a dive bar called 'Le Ranch’, and a boozy one night stand with a man many decades her junior. Which would be unsettling enough, were she not also obliged to wear a giant, strawberry-coloured afro wig.
In fact, Deneuve as drunken cougar is an oddly depressing sight, especially since, like Isabelle Huppert, she’s far from a natural comedienne. (Paul Hamy, however, as her overly-enthusiastic suitor, is hilarious.) Overall, these early scenes have a loose, semi-improvised feel that not only unforced, but unfocused. Most everything about them feels subtly wrong: the blocking, the dialogue... everything is off. The camera doesn’t seem to know where to look, or at what; a sense of generalised confusion reigns.
But then, unexpectedly, Bettie’s long-estranged daughter Muriel turns up, with her eleven-year-old grandson Charly in tow, and demands she take the boy to his paternal grandfather.
She and the kid eventually wind up in a hotel by the shores of a lake, where—as fate would have it—a group of former Miss Brittany contestants have gathered for a reunion, one of many rather too-neat coincidences here which serve to plunge her, somewhat belatedly, into a reckoning with her own past. Yet once her wanderings are given a motive, a clear destination, this road movie seems to settle more comfortably into its own skin; thereafter, it’s much smoother sailing.
An actress herself (recently seen in Maiwenn’s Polisse), writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot has an insider’s talent for getting the most out of her cast that’s all the more remarkable when you realise that most of the people Bettie meets along her journey are played by non-professionals, drawn from the local region. The friction between their naturalism—born from a simple lack of technique—and Deneuve’s slightly more polished approach, accounts for at least a little of the comedy, here. But it’s the scenes between Bettie and Charly which constitute the film’s real highlight—Deneuve has a delicious rapport with the boy, played superbly by newcomer Nemo Schiffman, the director’s own son.
Overall, though, it feels too long and too indulgent—not only of its heroine, but of the various eccentrics and goofballs she encounters en route. And there are too many clichés of the Quality French Film variety: merry Sunday lunches a la campagne, place-filling chansons on the soundtrack... perhaps even the very presence of Deneuve herself, less an actress, here, than a symbol, a kind of visual resassurance that we are in safe hands, and that all will be well. Still working, still there.