Mein Liebhaber, der Esel und ich / My donkey, my lover and I

A classroom in Paris. The kids have their faces on their desks, eyes closed. counting down from 40. One sneaks a peek to see their teacher slipping into a dress. Dolled up, she leads them to an end-of-year concert while she plays piano while they sing a song about missing a man who is far away. When it gets to the chorus, she sings along vigorously.

In the audience of parents and other teachers there’s a tall man with a beard. He smiles at the singing, giving a thumbs up sign. Soon after, he meets her in a classroom. They kiss, The school holidays are starting, and they’re going away together. Except, he tells her, they’re not. Instead he’s going on a hiking trip with his wife and their daughter – one of her pupils.

This is how Antoinette ends up going on holiday by mistake. Determined to see her lover – Vladimir, he’s called – she books up last minute for the same trip – on the Stevenson trail. This means leaving her comfort zone – while everyone else turns up with rucksacks and sturdy boots, she’s dragging along a bright pink suitcase on wheels.

In the hostel, Vladimir is nowhere to be seen, nor is his wife and kid. There are several other hostels nearby, maybe he’s in one of those. At a communal teatime, Antoinette explains her story and becomes the heroine of some of her fellow travellers, and the bête noire of others, one of whom tells her to return to Paris immediately and to leave her married lover alone.

On the trip, Antoinette is to be accompanied by Patrick, a donkey. Patrick will carry her luggage, and refuse to move when she’s in a hurry. Inevitably, the 2 develop a close bond. Some of the other travellers, particularly the male ones, start to show undue interest in Antoinette. She’s sociable enough, but mainly she prefers the company of Patrick.

Antoinette also learns the history of the Stevenson trail from one of the people running the hostel. It was where Robert Louis Stevenson met a married women 10 years older than him and fell in love. She returned to San Franciso by boat and whatever transport was available to cross the US mainland in the 19th Century and he thought he’d lost her. But eventually, she divorced, and they married. While he was waiting, he wrote Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Antoinette and Patrick get lost and walk in a circle, ending at the same hostel as the night before. And whaddaya know? There’s Vladimir with his wife and child. They had set off a day later than he’d told Antoinette. Antoinette ingratiates herself with the family, has a quickie with Vladimir, and everything goes swimmingly until Vladimir’s wife makes it clear that she knows what’s going on.

This film is billed as a comedy, though there aren’t many jokes, even though it’s pleasant enough. It doesn’t have much profound to say about the human condition, but nor should it have to. It’s part farce, and partly a travelogue which should please the Cévennes tourist board very much indeed. It’s an amiable visit to one woman’s life, and the scenery looks stunning.

It’s been said that during the COVID crisis there’s been a surge of interest in films with no big surprizes, which don’t tax the intelligence. This may explain the relative success of this film. But you know what? I can’t begrudge it anything. Maybe it helps that I saw it on a Sunday afternoon, but it was a perfectly enjoyable way of passing my time. Lest this seems to be damning with faint praise, we do need a little more enjoyment in life.

Laure Calamy is great as Antoinette – charming, hapless and with terrible taste in men. The film ends ambiguously, with the potential for a happy ending. But even then, you have the feeling that she’ll probably mess things up. This is how things should be. Perfect heroes who have no social difficulties can become very boring, very quickly.

The main strength of the film is that it somehow avoids descending into cloying sentimentality. It has little to say, but it says it with charm and elegance. There are more essential films out on offer at the moment, but there’s also a lot of turgid nonsense. This one is perfectly fine.

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