When it comes to curious mental games that critics sometimes play, one of the most entertaining is “Make It French.” It works like this: In the midst of watching an ordinary, insipid American-made romantic comedy, the viewer mentally makes it French. That is, they swap out the silly Hollywood story line, dialogue and actors and substitute imaginary French ones.
So instead of, say, looking at Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman bobbing and weaving through a Paul Thomas Anderson coming-of-age screenplay about growing up in 1970s suburban Los Angeles (otherwise known as Licorice Pizza), we could picture a French filmmaker and actors going through more or less the same drill, only in Paris or Montpellier. It forces us to look at the offending movie through different eyes for a minute.
Momentarily diverting as it is, “Make It French” is no automatic guarantee of quality. Any reviewer who has been around for a while has seen their share of banal French rom-coms—or serious marital dramas, or spy thrillers. For argument’s sake, the genres are interchangeable in this game. If you don’t believe that, try switching sides.
In “Make It American,” we should theoretically be able to take any random French film produced for export, and magically improve it by letting a carefully selected Hollywood cast and crew have their way with the material. Of course, the result could well be as pointless as the original “Make It French”—the American entertainment biz has no shortage of dreary hacks. But that’s all part of the thrill of killing time at a tedious press screening. Breaks up the monotony. Stirs up the critical juices. Makes us walk a kilometer in someone else’s flip-flops.
Which brings us to My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes), a romantic comedy starring actor Laure Calamy (Full Time), directed and co-written by TV regular Caroline Vignal.
For its first few minutes, My Donkey threatens to become an instant candidate for “Make It American.” Elementary school teacher Antoinette (Calamy) faces a classic fish-out-of-water situation when her boyfriend, Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), suddenly drops out of the couple’s planned summer vacation trip to the Cévennes Mountains in the South of France. Antoinette is devastated by Vladimir’s announcement, but our sympathy for her is mixed—turns out Vlad is a married father of one, and is making the same trip with his family. So Antoinette might have expected that sharing the French national ritual of an August vacation with her lover might run into complications.
But then, just as we’re ready to dismiss Antoinette as a self-centered ditz with poor taste in boyfriends, she (and actor Calamy) surprises us by being as charming as any rom-com protagonist in recent memory. She’s courageous, open, emotionally generous and determined to take that vacation on her own. Which means a young woman with no outdoor experience, going out on a six-day, 140-mile trek through the mountains with no company other than a donkey named Patrick, and spending much of that time pining for her lover.
Standard-brand situations arise. As a costar, Patrick is irresistible. We learn that Vignal’s screenplay is based upon author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 memoir, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes—evidently he made the trek for the same reason as Antoinette, to forget a romantic disappointment. Vignal adds a cinematic musical echo, “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” originally sung by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.
If there’s any further cross-referential juice left in the tank, My Donkey, My Lover & I might make an ideal double feature with Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a donkey story from an entirely different sphere, but one that resonates wherever that dumb beast digs in its heels. And as long as we’re in a hoofed-mammal mood, how about one of the (seven!) Francis the Talking Mule comedies, which feature Donald O’Connor as Francis’ two-legged sidekick. Hee-haw!