Filmmakers love to romanticize long drives as canvases for introspection, but cab drivers and their passengers are rarely portrayed in such a poetic light. At best, you get glaringly saccharine takes on race and class relations in films like “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Green Book.” At worst, you get Travis Bickle.
So when gruff French cabbie Charles (Dany Boon) hits the streets of Paris each morning, it’s fair to say that he’s not expecting to complete an entire road trip movie before he clocks out. When he pulls up to Madeleine Keller’s (Line Renaud) suburban alcove to drive her to her new nursing home, he’s just trying to help another paying customer run another errand before getting on with his life. What he fails to consider is that, for a 92-year-old, a simple drive across town can turn into an emotional odyssey filled with enough peaks and valleys to leave Wim Wenders emotionally drained.
Madeleine has reluctantly agreed to check into a care facility, but she’s in no particular hurry to get there. She asks Charles to take the scenic route, and they spend the day weaving through Paris as she recalls her youth and points out the landmarks that shaped her life story. She recalls her best kisses and her young loves before eventually opening up about the abusive marriage that led to her darkest chapters. Remarkably, she lacks bitterness about either her past or her present state and appears content to reflect on an eventful life.
We can debate whether a taxi driver stopping to smell the roses while his meter runs is an act of profound personal growth, but Charles ends up providing exactly the sympathetic ear that Madeleine needs. They stop for meandering walks and gourmet meals while she kills time before giving up her independence, and the day-long cab ride ends up making a profound impact on the lives of both characters.
“Driving Madeleine” unfolds as two parallel stories: the leisurely afternoon that Charles and Madeleine spend driving through Paris; and a series of flashbacks in which we see a younger Madeleine navigate war, domestic violence, sexual assault, legal drama, and decades of French history through her memories. The former is commodified arthouse fare, a slick take on a formula we’ve seen many times that nevertheless manages to push the right emotional buttons. But the melodramatic flashbacks resemble what we might have seen if Tennessee Williams had lived long enough to write an underwhelming Quibi series.
Carion’s attempt to cram a century’s worth of trauma into about 40 percent of a 90-minute movie inevitably sees him rushing through some of the material. The movie-of-the-week lighting makes it hard to take the scenes seriously in such an otherwise naturalistic film, and the exposition-heavy dialogue would feel more appropriate in a soap opera. It’s a perfectly fine approach for “Forrest Gump”-esque anecdotes about Madeleine’s days of seducing soldiers at sock hops, but it comes up short when the conversation turns towards more sensitive topics.
But while each flashback gets more and more grating, Line Renaud’s charm makes the present an increasingly welcoming place to return to. The French singer is a nonagenarian, but she embodies her eponymous character with a vigor that many 60-year-olds would envy. Her eyes tell a life story that’s equally magic and tragic, and her screen presence elevates “Driving Madeleine” into a fitting celebration of life from a character on death’s door. It’s such a rich performance that it’s almost insulting that the film felt the need to devote so much screen time to reenactments of her words.
If there’s one lesson that Madeleine Keller can teach us, it’s that sometimes the best way to appreciate the past is to firmly live in the present while doing so.
A Cohen Media Group release, “Driving Madeleine” is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. It expands nationwide on Friday, January 19.