The main character named Antoinette (Laure Calamy) is in a conversation with her lover’s wife, who is also the mother of one of her students. She is recounting how she got lost and had to spend her previous night alone in the woods. The other woman is shocked, as most people would be. “All alone?” she asks. No, of course not – “with my donkey” answers Antoinette. This is My Donkey, My Lover & I, directed by Caroline Vignal, in the Official Selection of the 73rd Cannes Film Festival, nominated for 8 César Awards, but above all a French comedy about love, and not the kind you expect.

Antoinette Lapouge is a 40-something teacher that has had bad luck with men in her past. She starts off the movie in the middle of an affair with Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of her 5th grade students. The school year is about to have a recess, and the pair of them are planning on spending their first vacation week together, as his wife will be out of town. But their plans change. Instead, Vladimir will travel with his family, to hike the Cévennes trail, made famous by the writer Robert Louis Stevenson who made the route in 1878, accompanied by a donkey. Antoinette decides that it is a good idea to follow him, pack her bags, book her trip and get herself a donkey, without telling her lover about it.

She soon finds out that Vladimir is not at the hotel that serves as a starting point for the trail, and that among most of the fellow hikers, she is the only one with a donkey. The animal itself, named Patrick, makes things more difficult as he walks at a very slow pace, and keeps stopping and refusing to move at random times. It is a long, frustrating walk, that soon reduces Antoinette to tears.

Based on just the film’s synopsis, you may think what awaits you is a slapstick crude comedy, that makes fun of its main character, shames her for her morally dubious decisions, and is not interested in developing its characters deeper. It is a story about a mistress and a donkey, after all. Vignal is well aware of the expectations, and she never gives in. Even at its most absurd moment of physical comedy – when Antoinette is literally running away from her problems in the shape of her lover’s family, and is being dragged behind a speeding donkey by a rope – it is laced with a bittersweet feeling and immediate consequences. You laugh, but you also feel her embarrassment, her euphoria, and her anger.

My Donkey, My Lover & I is best when it leans into Laure Calamy’s chemistry with the titular donkey. A lot of this film is just focused on Antoinette and Patrick’s relationship, with the breathtaking views of the French mountain range as a spectacular backdrop, and Patrick is not the most talkative of companions. It falls on Calamy to make every second feel compelling, and she doesn’t disappoint for a second with her portrayal of a complicated and charming woman who can’t stop making bad choices. We are not sure why she is doing that to herself, and Calamy makes it clear that Antoinette doesn’t know either, but is too far gone in her journey to stop.

The other part of this duo offers just as compelling a performance. Often when movies have an animal as one of the main cast, they become empty vessels onto which the rest of the characters project their feelings. But it would be absurd not to point out how charming Patrick is. Vignal really displays the donkey’s strong and endearing personality, as the audience gets to know him along with Antoinette, and grow to love him together.

It would be easy to compare My Donkey, My Lover & I to the Reese Witherspoon female-led hiking drama Wild. Both are based on books: Wild: From Lost to Found in the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by R.L. Stevenson. Both portray women at a difficult point in their lives, embarking on a journey of self-discovery by themselves. There is a crucial difference though, because Antoinette is not alone, she has Patrick by her side the whole time. A better comparison would be to the film Under The Tuscan Sun, about a woman who goes to Italy in search for romance and instead finds other kinds of love, that are just as important to have in your life.

Caroline Vignal’s feature is a comedy about love instead of a romantic comedy. Something silly that has a real beating heart underneath. It’s the perfect film to watch with a glass of wine on a Sunday when you’re ignoring the horrible things happening all around us in the world. It will make you laugh, cry, and demand an award nomination for a donkey (he deserves it).

Rating: ★★★

Available exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 5th March 2021