Wednesday 3 March 2021

Doña Quixote: "My Donkey, My Lover and I"

Had My Donkey, My Lover and I emerged in that fraught early Eighties moment when even the innocuous Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds vehicle The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas fell under police suspicion, one suspects distributors Curzon might well have faced a visit from the vice squad. But rest easy, everyone: this one's entirely above board, 12A-ready, generally beyond reproach. Released in its native France under the more regionally specific Antoinette Dans Les Cévennes, it's a bright, genial vehicle for the chaotic comic energies of Call My Agent!'s Laure Calamy, or Calamity Laura, as we should probably translate her. Her formerly eponymous Antoinette is a flighty schoolmarm - introduced getting changed at the back of her own classroom - whose plans for the summer holidays are scuppered when her married lover Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe) elects to take his wife on a hiking trip instead. Antoinette being Antoinette, she immediately books herself a parallel expedition, either to surprise her man or simply keep an eye on him. Her new companion will be a packmule called Patrick, who provides an impassive sounding board for Antoinette's insecurities, while lending her the look of a latter-day Doña Quixote. In most other respects, though, it's a traditionally French set-up: a relationship hitch that could occasion romantic tragedy is instead played out as farce, this time against a backdrop of especially verdant, sundappled countryside. La nature, elle guérit.

As with Antoinette's route, you could probably plot the emotional trajectory some distance in advance: our heroine is hiking from dependency and helplessness towards a greater sense of self-reliance. Yet the map has been drawn up (by writer-director Caroline Vignal, tipping her sunhat to Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes) with a modicum of smarts, and an eye for how other people might best nudge this other woman along. An early scene of al fresco dining - around one of those long tables you only get in European movies and countries where it doesn't rain ten months of the year - reveals contrasting attitudes among Antoinette's fellow travellers: the sympathies of an older woman who's possibly known what it is to be a mistress are countered by the unyielding judgements of a (notably married) contemporary. Of course, we're waiting for the awkward intersection with clan Vladimir; in the meantime, there's a funny, mock-Disney tableau with Antoinette waking up in a glade surrounded by woodland creatures, and a nice, fleeting, borderline-Denisian auberge hook-up with a biker, played by an actor (Jean-Pierre Martins) who reminded me of James Gandolfini's heavy-set grace around Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said. If it's meant as fairytale, and therefore meant as somehow instructive, we might wonder how useful it is to have guys lined up for Antoinette like trigpoints. (This girl can't help it; her self-determination is allowed to run only so deep.) For those of us who aren't predisposed to taking up with married men, however, it should qualify as daft fun, with a sweet woman-and-mule reunion, a droll choice of outro music (I could hear the late Philip French chuckling in the firmament) and one admirable note of restraint: no donkey dick jokes. Stand down, vice squad.

My Donkey, My Lover and I will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema this Friday.

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