The Magnificent Madeleine

January 19, 2024

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3 ½ stars

The 1979 movie Manhattan opens with the lead character, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), dictating notes for his latest novel. “He adored New York City,” he says into his tape recorder. “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white.”

That’s how I’ve always felt about Paris, mainly because the first French movie I ever watched and enjoyed was the 1958 classic Elevator to the Gallows, directed by Louis Malle. The romantic images that Malle and cinematographer Henri Decaë put up on the screen in that film left such a deep impression on me that I was disappointed when I got to the City of Lights. It was the same color as any other place I’d been. It’s an overly romantic notion, but that’s what great movies can do to their audience, 

Christian Carion’s 2022 film, Driving Madeleine, cinematography by Pierre Cottereau, gives the audience a much fresher, up-to-date tour of Paris as we travel with beleaguered taxi cab driver Charles (Dany Boon) as he transports an aged fare, Madeleine Keller (Line Renaud), from her home to a nursing facility. Like Malle’s movie, the city plays a considerable part in Driving Madeleine; it’s much more than just a setting for the story. It’s a cultural character. This story would not work if set in a New York cab with Scorcese behind the camera.

As romantic as Paris is in Carion’s movie, it’s the story of Madeleine and Charles that will steal your heart. Like all great cinematic romances, theirs gets off to a rocky start. Charles comes across as a guy who’s grumpy at the beast of times, but he’s downright cantankerous as the story begins. We eventually learn why he’s in such a bad mood, but it still takes a while to warm up to the guy.

Madeleine is a different story; you can’t help but love her from the minute she appears on the screen and sasses the moody Charles. She may be 92 years old and being moved into an assisted care facility, but there is a sparkle in Madeleine’s eyes that captures your attention. You know she has a story to tell; watching it unfold is an absolute pleasure. Carion, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cyril Gely, has a beautiful way of showing viewers Madeleine’s life and not just telling us. She reminisces with Charles about her first kiss and how she still remembers the taste of “honey and orange” it brought her 16-year-old self. Then, there is a flashback that doesn’t just show us that moment but envelops us with a sense of what young Madeleine felt when it happened. 

Not all Madeleine’s memories are so sweet, though. To say she led a full life would be an injustice to all Madeleine went through, just as spelling out the details of her past in a review would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. She may not be clad in spandex or have any superpowers, but Madeleine Keller is the truest kind of hero.

The performances from Boon and Renaud are phenomenal in their individual work and the fantastic way they interact. Like most films, Driving Madeleine wasn’t shot in sequence. Still, Boon and Renaud work hard to make you feel their relationship unfolding in real-time, making the audience feel they aren’t just watching something beautiful happen on the screen but are riding beside Charles and Madeleine in the cab. Kudos to Alice Isaaz for her unforgettable portrayal of Madeleine as a young mother/wife, a time that forever changed her life. 

Watching Driving Madeleine is such an enjoyable journey that you’ll wish it never had to end. You may be disappointed, too, with the too-predictable way that it does. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” Sharing this particular journey with Charles and Madeleine is one you will always treasure.


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