Laure Calamy shines at the center of Caroline Vignal’s charming French comedy “My Donkey, My Lover & I,” in a performance that earned her a Cesar Award for best actress in 2021. The original French title of the film is “Antoinette dans les Cevennes,” or “Antoinette in the Cevennes,” a reference to the film’s inspiration, the 1879 book by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.”
In 1878, seeking distance from an affair with a married American woman, Stevenson set out on a 12-day hiking trip in south central France with a donkey named Modestine to carry his belongings. His published travelogue is one of the first works to feature hiking and camping as a recreational activity, and his journey has since inspired many copycats to take up the Stevenson trail and retrace his steps, as our heroine, Antoinette (Calamy) does.
However, it’s not distance from a lover, but proximity, that Antoinette seeks when she books a last minute six-day hike with a donkey on the Stevenson trail. A fifth grade teacher, she’s been having an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her students. When she finds out their lovers’ retreat has been jettisoned so that Vladimir can hike in the Cevennes with his wife and daughter, Antoinette impulsively follows suit, with vague intentions of spontaneously running into him.
Antoinette is woefully underprepared for this journey, both physically and emotionally, and initially, she struggles to make headway with her trail companion, Patrick the donkey. But it’s her candor about the affair over a group dinner with other fellow hikers that makes her somewhat of an unexpected trail sensation.
Despite the drama, she starts to find a sense of peace and accomplishment in her journey, and in Stevenson’s, resonating with his words, “the best that we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” Antoinette’s friend is, of course, Patrick, a very discerning donkey who becomes her confidante and protector along the way.
“My Donkey, My Lover & I” is a bit like the French version of Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild,” just far more chic and fashionable, and with a lot more wine and sex. This kind of trip is the perfect setup for a comedy such as this, allowing Calamy to shine in her physical performance. Though she’s often acting opposite only a donkey, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun supporting characters, as she makes stops at the boarding houses with a similar group of people every night.
One could imagine that an American remake would be tempting, but the story is so rooted in French culture, from the specific details of Stevenson trail, to the rather laissez-faire approach to extramarital affairs, that much of its charm would be lost in translation.
Shot on location in the Cevennes, Vignal and cinematographer Simon Beaufils capture the stunning natural beauty there, and use careful composition to craft the absurdist humor, situating Antoinette and Patrick within the vast landscape. Vignal uses visual gags and editing to create much of the film’s comedy, but none of it would work without the effervescent Calamy, whose presence easily commands the screen, from the silly classroom mishap that starts the film to the eye-opening and life-altering journey on which she embarks.
Calamy delivers a beautifully open performance at the center of an utterly winning comedy about the most important journey a person can take: toward finding themselves. Stevenson got that right back in 1878, and “My Donkey, My Lover & I” is a delightful tribute to that work, and a profound story of self-love in its own right.
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