Foreign-language movie titles are typically made less interesting and more vanilla when they’re translated into English, but that is very much not the case with Caroline Vignal’s “Antoinette in the Cévennes” — or as it’s being released in the United States: “My Donkey, My Lover & I.” Each title proves accurate in its own way, but the American one does a better job of capturing the sardonic flavor of this mid-summer trifle about a sweetly pathetic school teacher (the wonderful “Call My Agent” star Laure Calamy) who rides an ass named Patrick across south-central France in pursuit of the man she loves. Who’s on vacation with his wife. And their young daughter. Who just so happens to be one of Antoinette’s students.
Effectively threading the needle between “Au Hasard Balthazar” and “Legally Blonde” (a phrase that I’ve waited my entire life to write), Vignal’s comic tale of self-discovery is as light and gentle as the rolling terrain that it travels, even if Antoinette encounters a few more bumps in the road than the average person who decides to retrace Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous path through Cévennes National Park.
Of course, when the “Treasure Island” author went to France in 1878, he did so in a futile effort to forget the person he couldn’t be with, whereas Antoinette embarks on the 220-kilometer journey in hot pursuit of her paramour. And our hapless heroine — a little pathetic, a little brave, and so dependent on men to help orient herself in the world that she’s quick to get lost on her own — doesn’t seem to be gaining any ground on Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe). If only someone had told Antoinette that most people just walk the trail on foot, these days.
The good news is that it will only be a matter of time before Antoinette begins to feel that she made the right decision. We know from the tone of the movie — equal parts “City Slickers” and “The Green Ray,” the latter vibe cemented with a cameo by Marie Rivière — that Patrick’s initial stubbornness will eventually pave the way for him to become a loyal confidant and the closest thing that Antoinette has to a friend. The donkey never seems bothered by the long and breezy scenes in which Antoinette monologues about her romantic misfortunes, or waxes poetic about the “magnificence” of Vladimir’s penis. It’s to the film’s great credit that the rest of Vladimir is decidedly less magnificent, as Vignal wisely resists the temptation to make him see Antoinette as some kind of unwanted stalker. She’s a nuisance to him, but the infatuation cuts both ways.
That mutual desire leads to some amusing moments, but there’s never any doubt that Patrick will be the film’s greatest source of comedy. That isn’t a knock against Calamy’s flustered but upbeat (and brilliantly well-balanced) performance so much as it’s a testament to Vignal’s gift for animal-based reaction shots; the first time she hard-cuts to a shot of Patrick braying his head off is genuinely hilarious, and the second time she does it is even funnier. This isn’t really a laugh-out-loud kind of movie, but the donkey playing Patrick doesn’t know that.
He also doesn’t know that Vignal’s script eventually lends his character a greater sense of depth than it offers to any of the humans in the cast — kissed off with a heartrending backstory and a heroic farewell — but his obliviousness invites Calamy to fill that empty space with Antoinette’s gradual self-understanding, as well as her growing awareness that other men might be available to her if she didn’t put all of her eggs in Vladimir’s basket. If she’s a bit slow to figure that out, well, that leaves us all the more time for us to soak up the widescreen scenery and enjoy Antoinette’s wayward return to nature, and to herself.
Indeed, “My Donkey, My Lover & I” is so airy and lackadaisical that it never feels like the kind of film that might lure someone back to set after 20 years of doing other things (prior to this, Vignol hadn’t directed anything since her 2000 coming-of-age drama “Girlfriends”). On its surface, this isn’t a story that burns to be told; you might be more inclined to believe that it was made on a whim.
And yet, there’s such a warm buoyancy to “My Donkey, My Lover & I” — such a well-earned, rejuvenating naturalness to the way that Vignol addresses the insecurities and frustrations that keep middle-aged women from loving themselves — that it eventually hits with the same oomph of a film that takes itself far more seriously. “Love exists!” Antoinette shouts to the mountains at one point. And what could be more worth sharing than that?
Greenwich Entertainment will release “My Donkey, My Lover & I” in theaters on Friday, July 22, and on Amazon Prime and Apple TV on Tuesday, August 30.
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