In his New York Times review of Emanuelle Bercot’s latest film, Elle s’en va – On My Way, Stephen Holden describes it as a road movie. This particular film genre is not as pervasive in France as it is in films from the US. But what constitutes a road movie? Is it primarily a male-defined genre or can we identify a feminine approach to this type of film.
In the road movie, the main character or characters leave their home and travel other places. From an historical point of view, we can trace the narrative’s roots back to Ancient Greek epics such as The Odyssey or Ancient Mesopotamian sagas like The Epic of Gilgamesh, where an initial fight between the two main characters – Gilgamesh and Enkidu – is followed by their grand journey to Cedar Mountain where they destroy the mountain’s monstrous guardian.
They also kill the Bull of Heaven, which brings the wrath of the gods upon them. Enikidu is sentenced to death. Distraught at the loss of his friend, Gilgamesh sets out on a long and dangerous journey in search of eternal life. Some cineastes – notably German director Wim Wenders - will say that the origin of this desire to roam lies even deeper into history, in our nomadic prehistoric roots, “in [our] primal need to leave an account of [our] passage on earth.” (New York Times, Nov 11, 2007).
As far as cinematic history is concerned, we can find examples of the road movie even in early Hollywood films. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, for example, is a character that is always on the road. The genre really blossomed, however, after the Second World War with the increasing presence and use of the automobile. In the 1960s, the road film really gained recognition with such epics as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969).
The road movie in France also began to flourish in the late 1960s and 1970s – Gérard Oury’s Le Corniaud (1965), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Weekend (1967), Bertand Bliers Les Valseuses (1974).
More recently, we have seen other examples:
Western (1997) by Manuel Poirier - a Spanish shoe company representative and a Russian hitchhiker track down love as they wander and hitchhike through Brittany.
Time Out (2001) by Laurent Canet - a 50-year-old executive is laid off, but rather than tell his family, he pretends to go to work but in reality passes the time driving the highways of France and Switzerland, reading the paper, or sleeping in his car.
The Grocer’s Son (2007) by Eric Guirado sees an estranged son return home from Lyon to his family’s home in the Drôme countryside and help out by driving the family’s grocer’s van from village to village.
Voir la mer (2011) – Two brothers drive their motor home from Burgundy to Saint-Jean de Luz in the Basque country but they come across an attractive young woman who has never seen the sea so together they head for the Basque coast.
The road movie genre is often characterized as a means of creating narratives that explore space and mobility, cross boundaries, and lead to escape from a stifling society and a mise-en-question of location and identity. In the hands of male directors, the genre is more often than not a romantic escapism where the automobile or motorbike allows the male protagonist to shake off the shackles of responsibility: job, home, marriage. By contrast, however, given that women have usually played roles within the home or in a space strongly connected with the private/domestic world the very presence of a woman or a couple of women alone on the road is a paradoxical insubordination to the status quo. Among the first woman-directed road movies was Chantal Ackerman’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), but perhaps the best known road saga directed by a woman is Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) (1985) directed by Agnès Varda and recently restored and re-released in cinemas in France. It tells the story from the end back to the beginning of a young woman who takes to the road and ends up frozen to death in a ditch. We follow the police investigation and discover in reverse order the events that led to her wretched demise.
Ten years later, Yolande Moreau – a Belgian actress and comedian - made her début in film-making alongside Gilles Porte with a road picture of her own: Quand la mer monte (When the Sea Rises) (2006). She plays the role of Irène. She is touring northern France with her one-woman show, where a stout, loud, and somewhat unattractive woman wearing a clownish mask comically confesses to the audience that she has murdered her husband. At each performance, she randomly selects a man from the crowd and makes him both lover and accomplice to a robbery she is planning. Having broken down one day on the road, she is helped by Dries (Wim Willaert) who was passing on his moped. As a way of thanking him for his help she offers him two tickets to the show. He comes with one of his mates, and she spots him in the audience during her performance. She chooses him as her "chicken" for that show.
Later, she goes out with Dries and his friends for a drink. They all hit it off quite well, but the next night, to Irène’s surprise, Dries shows up again for the show but gets thrown out of the theatre for berating some audience members who arrived late. Even though she is angry with him, she sees him after the performance and slowly their relationship evolves as she is drawn into the mesh of Dries’ life. She sadly sees him lose his job unloading and stacking vegetables on the open-air market, but then happily she gets to know him as one of the operators of Totor, his town’s famous giant puppet, who only comes out for the town’s festivities. The carnival atmosphere that surrounds the parading of the giant puppets contrasts with Irène’s holding on to the domestic side of her life through her regular evening phone calls to her husband, where they discuss the tiles they should choose for their kitchen and how things are going at his work.
Emmanuelle Bercot’s road movie also combines a feeling of escape from the domestic humdrum with a renewal, retrieval, rediscovery, or maybe a reinvigoration of family life? With Catherine Deneuve in the central role, the film explores domestic relationships, a particular genre of cinema (the road movie), whilst also engaging in a contemplation of life lived both on screen and in reality as Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle proposes in his review of the film.