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'My Donkey, My Lover and I' is a film with both charm and brains

Everything about Antoinette is off. She teaches fifth grade, and in a cheap powder blue ball gown, along with red shoes and bright red lipstick, she leads her class in a song for an assembly of parents. It’s about waking up beside her lover. The parents look stunned. What they don't know is Antoinette is having an affair with the married father of one of the students. When the father, Vladimir, tells Antoinette he's leaving on vacation with his wife and daughter to go hiking, Antoinette runs out of the school — and looks magnificently ridiculous as she chases a bus in her gown and red shoes.

Antoinette is so socially clumsy and bizarrely enthusiastic, she heads off to the same hiking spot, in the Cévennes mountains. And there she is, lurching downhill on a trail dragging her pink suitcase.

Actress Laure Calamy (from the French TV series Call My Agent) is sweetly uninhibited. She emits extra large expressions — way giddy when happy, glum in frustration. She's outfitted for the hike with supplies and a donkey to carry them, and here she sings to Patrick, the donkey, to get him to walk along with her.

When Antoinette finally gets a text from Vladimir, she launches into a zany jig. It's a gas to watch her wildly off-kilter responses to events, and she never seems to care about how people react to her. It can take a while to warm up to Antoinette — she's too far off the mark — but over time, the genuine life in her takes hold and you start rooting for her — not to find the boyfriend, but to find herself.

And that's, of course, the crux of the movie: Will Antoinette finally figure out what she wants and where's she's going in her life?

It's not a new idea. Reese Witherspoon ambles for hundreds of miles in her film Wild. But she's grim-faced and determined to get through her ordeal. Americans tend to believe that self-discovery is an arduous, guilt-ridden project, but My Donkey, My Lover and I sees the whole business as giddy, playful and inadvertent. The school parents may be surprised by Antoinette's costume and song, but unlike America, no one wants her fired, pilloried or shamed. Some of the hikers who gather at inns along the path find Antoinette foolish and think she ought to find a single guy for herself, but the moral condemnation is pretty slight. Even Vladimir's wife takes a calm stance. Antoinette herself is like a manic 16-year-old chasing her first boyfriend, but managing to giggle about things most of the time.

One couple tells her the long story of British writer Robert Louis Stevenson who pursued a woman through these same mountains, also with a donkey, and wrote a book about it: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. The point of their story is that Antoinette may be successful in her pursuit.

Against Calamy's hyperactivity is the unchanging dour countenance of Patrick the donkey. I suspect donkeys do not have a wide range of expressions, and director Caroline Vignal plays the somber unchanging face of Patrick beautifully. The film gives Patrick a kind of zen depth. While Antoinette bounces around the screen, Patrick stands blank-faced, imperturbable and at times quite literally unmovable. Patrick is the rock Antoinette needs to recover her balance. She even confesses to him about her checkered, unstable love life. The sight of her explaining her missteps in love to Patrick is worth the price of admission.

My Donkey, My Lover and I is not about to become one of the landmarks of either cinema or the annals of self-realization. But it has a lovely light touch and the sight of someone finding herself is satisfying.

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Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.