One of the year's most popular films in France comes to America this week. Here is a high-concept romantic comedy that routinely side-steps the trappings of that genre. Instead of everything moving towards the central couple getting together, My Donkey, My Lover and I (Antoinette in the Cévennes) offers up more nuance and thoughtfulness than expected as its central character moves out of an unhealthy situation into self-love.
Laure Calalmy, in a charming performance, plays Antionette a primary school teacher who is having an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe). She is smitten with him as the film begins, awaiting a planned weekend getaway. When he calls it off to go holidaying with his family, Antoinette foolishly follows them in hopes of what she isn't quite sure of. The six-day hiking trip vacation places her with a donkey named Patrick. The two form a bond as Antoinette begins to come to terms with her situation and if she wants to continue to pursue Vladimir.
The film is a modest delight, full of warm observations and comedy that comes from the characters rather than forced gags. Antionette at first seems like a stock rom-com character but as the film goes on, she reveals herself to be a more complicated and sadder character. She is flawed but also quick to realize that she is being foolish in tying her emotions up with a married man. She is also very warm-hearted and the bond with Patrick is endearing.
The rural setting keeps the film lush in imagery. The French countryside is beautifully shot and offers a pastoral backdrop to this gentle and easy-going story. Antoinette is woefully unprepared for this hiking trip, modeled after a trip Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about. She has never hiked and certainly not with a donkey. This results in many charming moments with the donkey. In fact, Patrick the donkey steals many scenes. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they make a donkey so distinctive in personality. He is a great co-star.
My Donkey, My Lover, and I is arguably a terrible title but don't miss out on this French treat. Laure Calamy is wonderful as Antoinette, making her complicated but likable. Even at her most selfish, Calamy gives the character depth. She is more than a pawn in a plot-driven movie. There is also a refreshingly sex-positive take throughout the film. Simple but rewarding, this small little foreign film is one to seek out.