“My Donkey, My Lover & I” is one of the unexpected filmgoing delights of this summer. It’s a French road comedy in which the “road” is a famous French hiking trail pioneered by a legendary Scottish writer, the vehicle a donkey and the journey one of romantic self discovery through beautiful scenery, cozy hostels and homey dining rooms..
So, “Eat, Bray Love” it is, then.
Titled “Antoinette dans les Cévennes” when it came out in France, it’s about a French fifth grade teacher out to meet a lover in the The Stevenson Trail, a multi-day trek through the Cévennes region along a route Robert Louis Stevenson took with a donkey named Modestine, from Puy-en-Velay to Ales.
Antoinette Lapouge (Laure Calamy) wasn’t planning on taking this trip, at least not alone. When we meet the vivacious 30something she is changing into a fancy costume in her classroom, and topping that inappropriate overexposure by leading her kids in an end of year performance of a too sexy love ballad.
Parental eyebrows are raised, especially when Antoinette, in a fit of passion, takes over the singing at the end. And then we see who this exhibition was for. Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe) is the father of one of her students. The second they can grab a moment alone, they’re going at it.
But their little “vacation” together is off. He’s married and he’s taking a donkey hike with the wife and daughter. Antoinette may not be a hiker, or an experienced donkey handler, or even somebody who knows how to tie a proper slipknot. That doesn’t keep her from impulsively booking such a trip on that same trail herself.
We’ll see who ruins whose vacation, won’t we?
A Hollywood version of this story would have played-up the mayhem Antoinette causes or might cause by finding and crashing her lover’s family vacation. It would have leaned hard on the quirky eccentrics she meets on the trail and milked stubborn donkey jokes for all that they’re worth.
Writer-director Caroline Vignal, inspired by Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes,” goes for something gentler, if just as light. It’s a quirky spiritual journey in the tradition of “The Way,” whimsical and soulful, but with swearing and braying.
Right from her first meal with a table full of strangers in a hostel, Antoinette is interrogated, mocked for doing things the Stevenson way with a donkey, which is an added hassle, and gently-and-not-so-gently judged for her life choices, her affair with a married man — the father of a student, no less.
“You’re right,” she giggles, in French with English subtitles. “Shame on me.”
Her over-sharing that first night sets up a running gag. Antoinette makes this trek in notoriety. Her plans to “stumble into” the lover and his family are widely known, and sometimes scorned. Almost every hostel keeper and many others on the trail know her story.
And if you don’t know how to curse in French, her interactions with Patrick the Irish donkey are a great primer and another running gag.
The donkey is just enough of a character in this film to register, a critter who only walks when she talks to him. Her talking, on these 20 or so kilometer a day hikes, is filled with chatter about Vladimir, what she loves and what she hopes, her anger and her despair and longing for this unavailable mate.
Naturally, when the donkey finally meets Vlad, his wife (Olivia Côte) and child, he’s had time to form an opinion of them.
“My Donkey” is a travelogue with weepy moments and grace notes — Antoinette breaking down at the sight of a loving, hostel-running couple and their kids, and then comforted by the story of why Stevenson took his own solitary trek told to her by sympathetic husband Idriss (Denis Mpunga).
The picture gets by on such moments, but even the meandering that goes on between them is cute and has its own charm.
If you’re looking for low-exertion a summer escape movie with a bucket list travel destination as its setting and a donkey and the hapless, lovelorn sap who rides him as its stars, “My Donkey, My Lover & I” certainly fills the bill.
Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, profanity
Cast: Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte and Denis Mpunga
Credits: Scripted and directed by Caroline Vignal. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:36