Review by Alan French
Oral storytelling rarely feels cinematic, yet filmmakers have mined it as the basis of film for nearly a century. From the earliest films to George Miller’s recent extravaganza, the power of stories has long held a place within cinema. One of our most common depictions of oral storytelling in 2022 has become the car ride, whether via taxi or the hiring of a driver. Given its commonplace nature in our culture, and our need to pass the time without silence, the setups seem apparent. While the “front seat, back seat” storytelling method may be overdone, it remains a fertile ground for elegant stories. Christian Carion returns to the director's chair with Driving Madeleine, a saccharine feature that breathes life into the format.
A middle-aged taxi driver, Charles (Dany Boon), faces another challenging day. He owes money to the wrong people, struggles to hold onto his marriage, and is one violation away from losing his license. Charles jumps at the high-priced fare when a call comes into dispatch to drive an elderly lady across town. On the trip, Madeleine (Line Renaud) recounts her life story. The two develop a bond within hours as Madeleine tells her incredible story.
Much of Driving Madeleine speaks to this moment. As global movements have restricted women's rights, Carion puts a woman suffering from abuse at the center of his tale. As the film evolves through Madeleine’s story, Renaud gets several showcase sequences. Alice Isaaz also shines while portraying a younger, more brutalized Madeleine. The two performers may showcase different aspects of their characters, but each key into commonalities, including a fierce internal strength.
Their combined efforts drive most of the film. They bring the emotional heartbeat to the film that ultimately helps this story stand out. Renaud brings a more nuanced performance as a woman on the other side of tragedy. Meanwhile, Isaaz adds a physicality and sadness one expects from her circumstances yet also channels the internal rage of a woman who pushes back against her abuser. Carion frames the story in a way that walks us through the tragedy, happiness, and resolve of a woman fighting back against unfair laws.
Boon also delivers a heartfelt role, a surprising turn from the angry character introduced to us in the first five minutes. As Charles faces trials and tribulations, Boon opens himself up. The vulnerability on display helps us connect and provides weight to Madeleine’s story. Ultimately, his turn is overly sentimental, as his growth occurs at lightspeed. Still, Boon radiates charisma that will likely win over most doubters.
Carion embraces the sentimental aspects of his story and deserves credit for leaning into that approach. Unfortunately, too many directors and storytellers try to subvert their own stories to make them feel fresh. Wisely, Carion allows Renaud, Isaaz, and Boon to shine. Some intense sequences in the middle of the film show a darker side to this tale, but the conventional tale ultimately holds Driving Madeleine back from excellence.
Driving Madeleine screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.