Review: A Blossoming Friendship Is at the Heart of Spirited, Sweet Driving Madeleine
From the director of the Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noel, Christian Carion’s latest work is a far more intimate but equally moving affair. The film kicks off by placing Madeleine (Line Renaud), a woman in her early 90s, in a cab with Charlies (Dany Boon), a stressed-out, financially strapped driver, and allowing them to have a day-long conversation as they drive around Paris together. Madeleine wants a driving tour of her old haunts as she recounts key moments in her life before she settles into what remains of her life in a retirement home. Charles has been promised a lot of money for the fare, so he’s happy to go along and subject himself to her spontaneous stops and listen to her stories, which go from romantic to outright shocking. Not surprisingly, the two begin to bond over the struggles their lives have seen, and the result is a tender, amusing, and incredibly sweet, spirited day-trip of a movie.
Charles’ troubles seem largely financial, as he makes and takes calls while driving, from family members and others who don’t seem especially excited to hear from him because he either owes them money or they know he’ll be asking for yet another loan. He has a patient, loving and frustrated wife who doesn’t see how they can continue living like this; and he has a young daughter that he’s desperate not to disappoint.
But as Charles hears Madeleine’s story, he realizes his life could be a lot worse—not that he’s comparing the two, but it’s impossible for us not to. We learn that she fell in love with an American soldier (Elie Kaempfen) when the Allied forces freed Paris, and after he left, she had his child. She met another seemingly good man, Raymond (Jérémie Laheurte), who quickly revealed himself to be a drunk who was violent toward her and her young son, Mathieu. After years of living with his abuse against her, Madeleine (played in her 20s and 30s by Alice Isaaz) finally snaps when her husband begins abusing the boy, and she takes action. I won’t say what she does, but apparently it was shocking enough to get national media attention, and she’s sentenced to jail for attempted murder for many years, leaving her mother (Gwendoline Hamon) to raise her son into young adulthood.
Driving Madeleine is a film about memories and aspirations, and both lead characters have had their share of both, even if their hopes don’t pan out quite how they’d like more often than not. The story takes turns that may seem unrealistic or corny, but other times things get quite dark and horribly believable. The one thing that never rings false is the blossoming friendship between Madeleine and Charles, who simply come to grow on each other. Through commiseration, they find common ground, even though the details of their lives are wildly different.
For decades, Renaud was known as a singer in France, while Boon gained popularity as a comic actor. But together, their mutual warmth and relatable charm allow for performances that are perfect for these characters. Above all else, the film will make me think twice about an older person I might otherwise barely look at as we pass on the street. What are the stories they could tell? And is there any chance their lives might mirror mine in any way? The film is slight, brief, and a lovely distraction.
The film opens Friday in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.