This is a French romantic comedy revolving around the love life of Antoinette, a primary school teacher in Paris with a lot of growing up to do.
Antoinette is having an affair with the father of one of her pupils. She’s looking forward eagerly to a fun week of illicit amour while his wife and child are away during the school holidays, but at the last minute he cancels because his wife has decreed his presence on a family hiking holiday in the Cevennes, a wild mountainous region in the southeast of France.
She is so disappointed and angry that on impulse she signs up for a similar hike with just a day’s notice, hoping for …. we don’t exactly know what because she hasn’t thought through what to do should she encounter them.
She’s equally unprepared for the rigours of hiking. She’s never done it before, and doesn’t even know enough to query the offer of a donkey to accompany her.
Why a donkey? It turns out that many years earlier, a young and lovelorn Robert Louis Stevenson travelled the Cevennes with a donkey and wrote about his adventure in an 1879 book. Ever since then, local hiking companies have traded on this romantic association. As you would.
Antoinette hadn’t realised the donkey was optional. Indeed, among the fellow pilgrims she meets on the first night, she is the only one to be saddled (pun intended) with a donkey. But by the time they set her straight about how these days the cool, the fit and the smug prefer high-tech camping gear to donkeys, it’s too late. Antoinette has, perhaps unwisely, blurted out her romantic folly and now she must prove to skeptics and admirers alike that she can do this. She sets off on her Long March accompanied by a copy of Stevenson’s book someone has given her, and her assigned asinine companion, Patrick.
Patrick is the donkey from central casting – stubborn and unco-operative. This leads to many funny scenes as soft-hearted Antoinette refuses the least physical or even verbal chastisement of Patrick, convinced that there must be a kinder, gentler way to his heart.
Antoinette may be prone to sentimental anthropomorphism, but the movie generally resists any such silliness.
Antoinette in the Cevennes has elements of both traditional American screwball comedy and French farce, although the comedy is too gentle and humane to fit either category. I like the way the characters all look like REAL people with real physical flaws. Even the young and fanciable are sometimes scrawny, as in the case of the Wife, or a bit overweight, like Antoinette herself in the nether regions. And I only mean according to unreal Hollywood standards. Antoinette is perceived by all around her as being sexy and attractive, and so she is. Bravo to French cinematic sensibilities on this score, I say.
There are no ‘name’ actors in the cast as far as I can tell. In the final titles I saw one actor credited as being from the Comedie Francaise, which is a bit like crediting an English actor to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It underlines just how much of a character-driven ensemble piece this is.
The plot has its implausibilities but as Antoinette encounters one after another character full of advice or admiration – she’s become a bit of a legend for her boldness – she ends up learning a lot about when to open up your heart and to whom. But – spoiler alert – the psychology of donkeys remains a bit of a mystery.