In Caroline Vignal’s French comedy, Antoinette in the Cévennes (2020), our heroine Antoinette Lapouge, lightly armed with a sun-hat and denim shorts, has hired a donkey with saddle and side-bags to help her hike the mountainous Cévennes region of south-central France. In some English language releases, it’s titled My Donkey, My Lover and I. The country-western song, My Rifle, My Pony and Me, which features on the soundtrack on two occasions — surprisingly the first time you hear it — somehow fits the scenario.
No more cows to be roping
No more strays will I see
Round the bend she’ll be waiting
For my rifle, my pony and me.
(From the film Rio Bravo, 1959)
Antoinette (Laure Calamy, in her first leading role), a 40-something primary school teacher, is looking forward to her long-planned summer holidays with her secret lover Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her pupils. When learning that Vladimir can’t come because his wife has organised a surprise trekking holiday in the Cévennes National Park with their daughter, Antoinette decides to follow them, solo, with Patrick, a stubborn donkey. (‘Patreek! PATREEK!’, she cries in frustration while trying desperately to get the donkey to move as she begins the trail.)
In a later scene, Antoinette, who has sprained an ankle earlier in the day and can barely walk, is taken that evening to a village café where she meets a larger-than-life motorcycle-cowboy, who tells her in few words how attractive she is, kisses her and, soon after, carries her upstairs in his broad arms; she seems happily seduced. Next morning he’s on the bike and gone with a brief farewell but we already know that Antoinette’s real love interest in this romantic comedy is Patrick the donkey.
Calamy plays Antoinette as a flawed but splendidly amusing, bon vivant character — determined, flamboyant, even if a little fragile. You can spot the links with her portrayal of Noémie Leclerc, assistant to an artist’s agent, in the popular French TV series Call My Agent!
The director’s screenplay is part autobiography which began with a desire to film the Cévennes where she’d spent a week walking with her family in 2010 — and then going back the following year when they were accompanied by a donkey called Patrick. Vignal developed a love for the landscapes of this wild, sparsely populated region, and for its inhabitants. Several of the film’s characters are based on the people she met, one reason perhaps, why they ring true.
Between trips and while starting to write the script, Vignal read Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s earliest published works, now considered a classic. Stevenson, in his late 20s and dependent on his parents, devised the journey to provide material for publication while allowing him to distance himself from a love affair with an American woman of which his family did not approve and who had returned to her husband in California. Travels recounts Stevenson’s 12-day, 200-kilometre solo-hiking journey through the impoverished areas of the Cévennes in 1878. The other principal character is Modestine, an obstinate donkey he could never quite master.
The Stevenson Trail (or the GR70), as it’s known, attracts over 10,000 hikers a year who come to walk in the Scottish writer’s footsteps — and who perhaps are also in love with France. The story of Stevenson’s journey is discussed and Antoinette is seen reading Travels with a Donkey throughout the movie.
Once I settled into the character of Antoinette, which took a little while, the film went on to become an engaging, quirky and life-affirming story populated by authentic characters — including the delightful Patrick — in wonderful, wild landscapes and small, charming villages.
Director: Caroline Vignal
Cast: Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Cote
Run-time: 96 mins
Winner 2021 César Awards, Best Actress (Laure Calamy).
Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021; Palace James Street and Palace Barracks; 17 March to 13 April. https://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/
General release dates: NSW•VIC•WA•ACT: 8 April 2021; QLD: 15 April 2021; SA: 22 April 2021.