When Charles complains about the distance and the expected traffic jams, his dispatcher tells him he can turn on the meter before picking up his passenger. After impatiently ringing Madeleine’s bell, Charles is startled to find her sitting on a bench across the street. She’s packed and ready to go, but as we’ll see, she’s in no hurry to get to her destination.
Madeleine has no family and is being moved into an assisted-living facility after falling at home. Charles is a working-class schlub with financial troubles and a glum disposition. At 46, he could be Madeleine’s grandson, a fact she points out as she tries to get him to loosen up and chat with her. As their journey progresses, the two share their stories and their pasts.
Writer-director Christian Carion has created a textbook example of the road-trip movie, that subgenre where two people bond and relate while riding in some form of motor vehicle. He’s also added elements of wartime romance movies, social dramas, and what Hollywood studio system-era folks used to call “women’s pictures.”
Several flashbacks are woven into the current-day narrative, each given an appropriate visual representation of Madeleine’s feelings by cinematographer Pierre Cottereau. For example, the lighting in a dancehall sequence set during World War II glows with a golden nostalgia. It’s here where Madeleine meets Matt, the American GI who became her one great love and whose kisses tasted like “honey and oranges.”
But don’t expect a syrupy time at the movies. Madeleine’s story includes hardships, a brutally honest depiction of how few rights women had in the 1950s, and a husband, Raymond (Jérémie Laheurte), who commits shocking acts of domestic violence. There’s also an audience-pleasing act of retribution that has unfortunate consequences. Alice Isaaz gives a very good performance as the younger Madeleine in these flashbacks; she’s equally adept at conveying lustful desire and seething rage.
“Driving Madeleine” is held together by the funny and dignified performances of its two leads. Boon is one of France’s great Everyman actors — he’s totally convincing as a beaten-down cabbie. Renaud, a well-known French singer who is actually three years older than her character, uses her open face and soft voice to pull us into the stories she tells. Whenever Carion cut back to Madeleine after a flashback, I believed she was reliving the moment.
Even through windshields, Paris looks wonderful whether it’s day or night. The drivers in this movie are as bad — and as reckless — as they are in real life. A traffic violation, though accidental, leads to a suspenseful yet lovely scene between Madeleine and the female cop who, after Charles runs a red light, could issue the ticket that would get his license revoked. The camera sits outside the taxi as the two talk. We can’t hear them, but the cop lets Charles off with a warning.
I just wish the director edited out the subsequent scene where Madeleine reveals what she said, ruining the mysterious magic of the prior moment.
The screenplay also has a cheesy conceit that’s a trope of road movies. It didn’t bother me, but your mileage may vary. Madeleine takes Charles on several detours, each representing some point in her life. We get the sense that this trip is Madeleine’s life flashing before her eyes; if you’ve seen any movie like this before, you can figure out the ending. Predictable or not, I was moved.
Written and directed by Christian Carion. Starring Dany Boon, Line Renaud, Alice Isaaz, Jérémie Laheurte. In French. At Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. 91 min. Unrated (profanity, domestic and sexual violence)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe’s film critic.