An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dan Webster reviews “My Donkey, My Lover & I”

“My Donkey, My Lover & I” is a purely French look at life, love and how to tame a donkey, Dan Webster says in his movie review.

In the early fall of 1878, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson embarked on a 12-day, 120-mile hike through the Cévennes mountains of south-central France. Besides being a means of finding material that he could turn into a book, Stevenson’s intent was to discover a way to contain his emotions while being separated from the woman he loved.

Stevenson’s subsequent account of his trek, published a year later under the title “Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes,” is said to be one of the first examples of outdoor literature.

The basis of Stevenson’s story is explained in the French film “My Donkey, My Lover & I,” written and directed by Caroline Vignal and starring the César-winning actress Laure Calamy.

Calamy plays Antoinette, a grade-school teacher who is carrying on an extramarital affair with Vladimir (played by Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her students. Excited over the idea that she is going to be able to spend part of her vacation with her lover, she is disheartened to learn that he won’t be available; seems, like Stevenson, he’s going hiking in the Cévennes, but unlike Stevenson he’ll be accompanied by his wife and daughter.

Being as impulsive as she is smitten, Antoinette decides to go hiking, too – in the same area, and on the same route with the hope that she’ll be able to somehow connect with Vladimir. Though woefully unprepared, she arrives at the first station and is prepped on what she’ll need, what route she’ll have to take – and whether she’ll need a donkey to carry her supplies.

Which, of course, she will. And this is how she meets Patrick (pronounced Pah-treek), the donkey who becomes, as the movie progresses, Antoinette’s menace, her companion, her partner and, ultimately, her solace.

So far, this sounds like your typical coming-of-age or, more accurately, coming-of-adulthood story. And in many ways it is both. But unlike your typical American version, which would tune up the farce and tone down the drama, the story that writer-director Vignal tells is thoroughly French.

How so? Well, Antoinette is unashamed about the affair she is having. During the first evening in which she meets a large group of other hikers beginning the same route, she admits to everything – the affair, her hopes of encountering her lover, not to mention the fact that she is a hiking novice with no idea of the hardships that lie ahead. Her confession, which is what her explanation amounts to, becomes a theme of the film as her fame – or shame, in the eyes of at least one other hiker – precedes her. Everywhere she goes, the people she encounters – even strangers – know her as “that Antoinette.”

She does, finally, meet up with her lover and his family, and even ends up hiking with them for a while. But though things turn prickly, Antoinette’s dalliance being far less of a secret than she imagines, this unveiling is only part of what changes her – if, indeed, she changes at all. No, as expected, it is Patrick – sorry, Pah-treek – who becomes the gauge by which we can measure Antoinette’s gradual maturing. And their impending separation becomes one of the film’s truly moving moments.

Calamy is perfectly suited to play Antoinette, being more pretty than movie-star beautiful. She’s able to play her character convincingly, wide-eyed with the joy of being in love, that all-too-short period marked by wild, sensuous emotion that – if one is lucky – evolves into something far richer and more lasting. Pah-treek is a perfect fit for his part, too, recalcitrant when he needs to be and capable of braying his dislike at will.

And, too, the Cévennes look gorgeous, especially to eyes that have been hungry for more than two years to again see the European countryside.

I questioned before whether Antoinette’s venture changes her. It’s a legitimate query. For the way “My Donkey, My Lover & I” ends makes it unclear. Has she evolved or merely replaced one kind of obsession with something else?

Oh, well, Robert Louis Stevenson’s own trek worked out, resulting both in a book and a reconciliation with his absent lover. Maybe a happy, fulfilling future is in store for Antoinette as well. It’s certainly nice to think so.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for