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‘My Donkey, My Lover & I’: A good long walk with great company

Delightful French comedy follows a woman and her strong, silent companion as they make their way across the Cévennes

Laure Calamy in “My Donkey, My Lover & I.” (Greenwich Entertainment)
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(3 stars)

“My Donkey, My Lover & I” was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Or, more accurately, its mountain setting was inspired by the hiking itinerary Stevenson wrote about in his 1879 memoir “Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes.” Set in the present day, the French comedy by writer-director Caroline Vignal follows Antoinette (Laure Calamy, whose performance here garnered a César Award), a fourth-grade teacher in Paris who has made the unfortunate decision to become involved with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the married father of one of her students. When vacation time arrives, Antoinette assumes they’ll spend some time together, but her lover informs her that he and his family will instead be going on a mountain trek. It will be Vladimir, his wife, his daughter and a donkey. Antoinette signs up for the same trip, planning to “accidentally” meet up with Vladimir somewhere on the trail.

Call it “Eat, Bray, Love.”

Antoinette is matched with Patrick, an ass who lives up to his name. Wily and stubborn, Patrick presents the greatest obstacle to hiking. When Antoinette wants to go, he wants to stop. When she wants to stop, he wants to run. As the trip progresses, however, Patrick becomes Antoinette’s four-legged therapist as she chats to him about Vladimir and other men, her life in general, and so on. You get the feeling that very few people have ever really listened to our protagonist, and the strong and silent Patrick — who seems to be almost all ears — is a good listener.

In the hands of any other actor, the role of Antoinette might have been a bit much. The character is a little too outgoing and takes a little too much satisfaction in wearing her heart on her sleeve. Yet Calamy makes Antoinette immensely likable from the get-go. Even as she dons a slinky gown for a school performance to catch Vladimir’s eye — a cringeworthy act of desperation — we see the underlying sweetness. Vignal’s wonderfully sly, episodic script almost plays like “The Odyssey,” as Antoinette encounters various people along the way, all of whom she can learn something from (although she often doesn’t).

The story is particularly good when it comes to introducing a series of male characters, each of whom we assume is going to be the one who will finally distract Antoinette from Vladimir. Instead, they’re often jerks of one ilk or another, and Antoinette has to handle them — sometimes learning to stand up for herself, sometimes learning to stand up for Patrick and sometimes both. The screenplay never gets bogged down by treacle, though, and even when Antoinette breaks down, it’s clear that she has built up enough strength to continue once she’s wiped away her tears. There are also moments of delightfully silly humor. (Did I mention that there’s a donkey in the movie?)

While this is the story of a woman on a hike, don’t expect “Wild.” The Cévennes itinerary isn’t exactly the Appalachian Trail, and Antoinette doesn’t have to face down any huge physical challenges. She doesn’t really even have to camp: Most evenings end with a prearranged meal and a bottle of wine at a cozy French inn. That’s excellent — for both Antoinette and the audience — because the relatively easy walk means that all the heroine needs to do is think and talk as she puts one foot in front of the other. It’s a pleasure to accompany her on this meditation on the go, if for no other reason than the gorgeous scenery. (Pro tip: Wait until the movie is over before pulling out your phone to Google “hiking through France.”) Vignal is just as adept at shooting tight shots as wide-open spaces. One particularly lovely scene features Antoinette riding Patrick through a French village at night, looking like a Virgin Mary who just stepped out of a Caravaggio painting.

A long walk with a good friend can fix a lot of things, even if — maybe especially if — that friend doesn’t say much, save for a few bleating screams. Taking this one with Antoinette and Patrick is refreshing, amusing and utterly enjoyable. With its easy pace and genial company, “My Donkey, My Lover & I” is a journey worth taking, even if, at the end of the day, there’s no cozy French inn waiting for you.

Unrated. At area theaters; available Aug. 30 on Amazon and Apple TV Plus. Contains coarse language, brief nudity, sexual situations and drinking. In French with subtitles. 97 minutes.

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