“Excuse me, I’m lost.” It’s an understatement for Bettie (Catherine Deneuve), uttered as she treks through tall grass, waving her map around to flag down a nearby farmer. She’s running away from her stifling home and disappointing life, lost both physically and spiritually, paralyzed by her past and unsure of what direction to take for her future. As promising as this start may seem, as On My Way (Elle s’en va) initiates Bettie’s journey of self-discovery and new adventures, it’s not long before the film turns trite.
We’re aware that all is not right in Bettie’s world immediately, when we see her sitting alone after a long day’s work in her debt-ridden restaurant. A close-up shows her head tilted back, zoning out as she looks upward, before she looks down again, to take a sip of wine. Cut to a wide shot of Bettie seated in the dark, legs kicked up onto the edge of a table, the only source of light in the room a lobster tank with two of its inhabitants fighting. Bettie watches this combat and yes, we know that the lobsters reflect her own internal conflict.
That conflict is kicked into motion with the sudden end of Bettie’s multi-year affair with a married man. Her lover runs away with a younger woman, a severe blow to Bettie who is constantly reminded of how beautiful she was when she was in her 20s and known as “Miss Brittany” on the French pageant circuit. This haunting past is introduced under the film’s opening credits, as the camera tracks Bettie from behind on a sunny beach. She turns around suddenly, as if someone has called her name, at which point the scene cuts abruptly to a black and white photograph of a gorgeous, younger Bettie in a pageant setting. We see how she remembers how she used to be, that the image and experience distract her, that she misses being young and desired.
The distraction turns acute when Bettie’s boyfriend leaves her. And she reacts injudiciously, abandoning the restaurant with a simple-seeming “I’ll be back” and setting off on an extended drive around the French countryside. To ensure we understand her upset, On My Way delivers the expected driving montage, cutting back and forth, from Bettie behind the wheel, pained look on her face, to winding roads and scenic French countryside. As if this isn’t enough, the soundtrack for these long moments is Rufus Wainwright’s “This Love Affair”: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m saying… I don’t know where I’m going. But I do know that I’m walking. Where? I don’t know. Just away from this love affair.” I think we get it.
On My Way drags out this pity party until Muriel (Camille), Bettie’s estranged daughter, calls her for help. Flailing in her own life, Muriel reluctantly begs Bettie to take her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) to his grandfather’s while she (Muriel) pursues a job opportunity. Bettie agrees, surprising her daughter but not the rest of us. This pivotal moment in the plot not only gives Bettie a new sense of purpose and direction, but also moves the focus away from Bettie wandering around as she’s feeling terrible about herself. She now has Charly to consider and must think beyond her own concerns and disappointments.
But this turn is as predictable as others in the film. Charly’s the sort of 11-year-old we’ve seen in too many other movies, the precocious, adorable loudmouth who doesn’t hesitate to call out his grandmother’s ridiculousness. In doing so, he forces her to confront the insecurities and inner demons keeping her stuck in life, and draws our attention to them well. In one scene, Charly and Bettie are about to go to sleep in their hotel room. Bettie is afraid of the dark, a fear that appears to stem from a traumatic nighttime car accident, so she hesitates when Charly asks her to turn off the lights. As he explains, he can only sleep in the “dark-dark”. And so she must adjust, must reconsider her habits and assumptions in order to accommodate someone else. This pattern continues throughout their road trip, as Bettie and Charly disagree and bicker over such trivial matters as how to read the map, Bettie’s subpar driving skills, and trinkets at the gas station. In each of these situations, Bettie behaves in ways that suggest she’s at least as childish as her grandson.
These episodic encounters make for a journey that’s cute at times, but mostly filled with clichés in depicting a child leaving an impression on a deeply flawed adult. Despite all of Charly’s efforts and fighting with his grandmother and the audience’s investment in her story (she’s Catherine Deneuve, after all), Bettie remains as undeveloped as the film around her. While the title On My Way implies the start of a journey that might be energetic and fresh, by the film’s end, Bettie doesn’t seem like she’s moved much at all.