There’s a certain poignancy that the star of the French drama “On My Way” is Catherine Deneuve. The film follows Bettie, a former bombshell, as she confronts the sad realities and ever-shifting challenges of aging. Like Bettie, the 70-year-old Deneuve isn’t the fresh-faced head-turner she once was, but “On My Way” demonstrates that this leading lady still knows how to command an audience’s attention.
Unlike Deneuve, Bettie’s professional life hasn’t amounted to much. Since her husband died years earlier, she’s been barely scraping by, running a small restaurant in a village in Brittany. She lives in her childhood home, along with her mother, and she’s estranged from her daughter and young grandson. Her existence feels tenuous, as if it wouldn’t take much for her to come undone, and sure enough such an event unfolds. When Bettie’s paramour leaves his wife — and Bettie — for another, younger woman, the erstwhile mistress gets in her car and leaves town without so much as a word to her mother or employees.
Bettie’s resulting road trip looks pretty aimless, but each random stop seems to build up to something, further explaining why this character maintains a somewhat closed-off demeanor. At one point, she stops in a small village looking for a cigarette, and an elderly man offers to make her one, even though his arthritic fingers struggle with the task. Bettie has to fight the urge to snatch the thing from his hands and do it herself, but her frustrations are complicated by her own march of time. That could be her someday.
The movie’s richest moments come after Bettie gets a call from her daughter, who’s in a bind and needs someone to take care of her son, Charly (Nemo Schiffman). Suddenly this road-tripper finds herself with a companion on her journey, and the pair heads for a reunion of former French beauty pageant girls. (Decades earlier, Bettie was crowned Miss Brittany.)
There’s an effortlessness in the way writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot paints a scenario that will feel familiar for some: Here’s Bettie, a mother and a daughter, tasked with caring for both her own mother and daughter — or in this case her daughter’s son. Everyone needs something, and nothing ever seems like enough.
Bercot’s sense of atmospherics is more successful than her editing and camera work. Some pieces of the plot seem like they would make a bigger impact with a bit more backstory — it’s never entirely clear what the problem is between Bettie and her daughter, for instance — and the choppy zooms can be jarring. But these series of vignettes still leave an impression, thanks in no small part to Deneuve.
“Remember: Head back for the double chin,” a man instructs Bettie as she prepares to have her picture taken for a beauty pageant calendar. Even after all these years, the woman still seems like an amateur. Only an expert like Deneuve could pull that off.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row.
Contains nudity and language. In French with subtitles. 116 minutes.