“It’s much less about immediate stakes and much more about open-ended discovery, and it’s within that space that My Donkey, My Lover & I is at its most enjoyable.”
by Ken Bakely
The comedy of Caroline Vignal’s My Donkey, My Lover & I is, for the most part, charming but wry, quietly luxuriating in the awkward interactions and unusual situations it explores. It’s pleasantly self-contained and confident in what it’s about. In other words, this is a movie that recognizes the restorative powers of hiking through the French countryside with a particularly stubborn donkey, and does not feel the need to evangelize it to you. The person who finds themselves in this particular predicament is Antoinette (Laure Calamy), a Parisian schoolteacher who has been carrying out an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), a married father. Their initial plans for a getaway at the start of the summer holidays are stymied by competing vacation plans with his wife (Olivia Côte) and young daughter (Louise Vidal), who is a student of Antoinette’s. In a snap decision, Antoinette decides to follow them, impulsively signing up for a long hike through the Cévennes which traces the 1878 journey made by Robert Louis Stevenson. And to match the author’s trip, Antoinette is assigned a donkey to accompany her. Named Patrick, he is the (initially) uncooperative foil to her admittedly indistinct mission – what does she think this will accomplish? – and becomes the outlet for her musings, rants, realizations, and frustrations as she continues this emotional and physical ordeal, as she considers the trajectory of her life and where this expedition might lead.
Because this movie goes about its business in such a casual and incidental way, it’s much less about immediate stakes and much more about open-ended discovery, and it’s within that space that My Donkey, My Lover & I is at its most enjoyable. There’s nothing here that’s particularly stunning – or, in all frankness, memorable – but Vignal’s warm direction and breezy writing usually provide a sturdy sheen to the production. It’s a wispy comedy that does not mind spending lengthy sequences watching Antoinette and Patrick wander through the bucolic scenery (enticingly captured by Simon Beaufil’s bright cinematography) as Antoinette monologues about her life and relationships, past and present. Laure Calamy excels in the role, matching the film’s strengths and presenting the character as someone whose personal growth or changes of heart and mind happen quietly – in parallel conversations and indirect realizations. Antoinette is, thankfully, not merely a reflection of a character who things merely happen to: instead, she’s given something to do and, within that framework, whatever transpires will transpire. It’s not spoiling the plot to say that Vladimir’s involvement in the ultimate direction of this story is limited, because Antoinette – and the film – is about more than this pursuit. Vignal has created a character of messily human qualities, and Calamy understands this.
But My Donkey, My Lover & I is so accomplished with the finer details and quieter moments of its minimalist plotting that, in some strangely ironic reversal, the movie can’t really handle the bigger gestures it occasionally attempts. The film so often finds a gentle cruising speed that any conscious aberrations seem all the more jarring – whether it’s the occasional episode of particularly broad comedy, or the lengthy conversation that seems a little too perceivably on-the-nose to add more context or wrap up a detail. An instructive example of the movie’s finest accomplishments can be seen, very fittingly, in Patrick the donkey. He is first the great obstructor of the story, the apparent fixation of everything that will come. But time goes on, Antoinette’s travels and her inner life become richer and more complex to the viewer, and he is there – and it’s still objectively funny that he is there – but he too has become another part of the larger setting that balances the movie’s loose style. A final sequence reiterates both his importance to the story and Antoinette, but it’s as organically introduced as anything else should be. What the movie does best exists outside of any tight prescriptions over what needs to happen. Much like its main character, it sets off on an excursion that has a nominal destination. The real takeaways are what happens instead, and the film is all the better for it when it lets us take time to observe the journey.