A COMMENTARY ON OUR FILM FOR MAY, “ELLE S’EN VA” (ON MY WAY)
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
A Film by Emmanuelle Bercot - 116 min. Drama • Comedy
Synopsis: With a romantic relationship ending, and already estranged from her grown daughter, as well as facing the prospect of a failed restaurant business, a woman hits the road for a trip with her grandson and whatever may be found around the next bend in the road.
No matter how you tell yourself
It’s what we all go through
Those lines are pretty hard to take
When they’re staring back at you.
From the song, Nick of Time, singer Bonnie Raitt
Every adolescent boy in the sixties knew about the sexy and beautiful French actress, Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve was 19 when she starred in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Two years later she appeared as the elegant, affluent woman who turned tricks in the afternoons in the steamy film Belle de Jour.
Now more than fifty years have passed. Deneuve is 70 years old, and stars as a grandmother and former beauty queen named Bettie in her latest film, Elle S’en Va. Despite my own failing eyesight, I’d say she still looks damn good for a grandma.
In Elle S’en Va there are two stories simultaneously going on; one onscreen and another lingering behind the scenes for the viewer to resolve for themselves. One is a rather rambling and disjointed plotline with no particularly satisfying resolutions to any of the little vignettes along the way in this very-French film.
The other story which awaits each viewer to figure out for themselves is how one deals with the natural and irrevocable forces of aging and loss, while everything life has to throw at you just keeps happening.
On the one hand, Bettie repeatedly declines a request to be part of a photo shoot of former beauty pageant winners, because of a painful memory associated with the time she was once Miss Brittany. When she finally relents, it is only for completely unrelated and practical other reasons with which she has been confronted.
In another brief encounter on her road trip of self-exile, she finds herself desperately driving miles through the French countryside to buy smokes on a Sunday when all the shops are closed.
On the verge of nicotine withdrawal, she’s rescued by an aged farmer who invites her into his house; where she sits across the kitchen table as he tediously tries to roll a cigarette for her. Bettie fidgets impatiently, wringing her empty hands, as his swollen and arthritic fingers struggle slowly to lay the shreds of tobacco in the paper, curl and seal it.
When he’s finally finished and lights her cigarette, and after she takes her first satisfying drag, they’re able to return to a rambling conversation. He first mumbles how the crops have not been good that winter; before the conversation somehow turns to sharing the most intimate memories of lost loves, ancient regrets and solitude.
Early on in the film -- after Bettie’s own elderly mother has related some town gossip that will quickly dash some of her aging daughter’s own idle dreams -- she concludes the unhappy news by advising Bettie to rid herself of the “particles” that cling to her.
“You mean barnacles,” Bettie corrects her.
“Barnacles, particles,” her mother replies, “what’s the difference?” Indeed.
After a drunken one-night stand with a young man who enjoys romancing and seducing older women, Bettie is smart enough to not be misled about the present chapter in her life that has no place for the young fool. With his longing arms outstretched, she jumps in her car, hits the gas pedal and leaves him in the dust of forgettable moments.
There are some completely predictable scenes in the storyline, and still others that leave the viewer completely befuddled as to why they are there, or what they could possibly mean. Whether intentional, or merely part of the montage of consequential and inconsequential events that clutter and define all our lives, it is left up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
Elle S’en Va is certainly not Hollywood fare. The story begins with the the sense one could have begun watching Bettie anytime before she grabs her car keys one day and takes off. A string of events then unfold. Then the story ends rather abruptly without any real conclusion; except for a one-liner several characters shout in agreement.
The film is an empirical exercise, leaving the viewer to observe a life that -- like most -- is a mixed bag that includes some things that just never get fixed, or even addressed. So one learns to accept people and things as they are, and just learns to live with them. Comme ci, comme ça.
An interviewer recently asked DeNeuve, “What is the secret to aging well, aside from starting out beautiful?”
“I think it’s different for men and women,” she said. “I think for men it has more to do with a fulfillment of what they do in their life, their social life, their work. I think for women, it’s more private. It has more to do with a personal fulfillment with a life, love and children.”
“Do you find aging difficult?”
“I think it’s difficult for everybody,” she replied.
And life goes on.