A despairing taxi driver and a 95-year-old ex-con bond in Christian Carion’s dark comic-drama

A despairing taxi driver and a 95-year-old ex-con bond in Christian Carion’s dark comic-drama

Joyce Glasser reviews Driving Madeleine (November 17, 2023) Cert. 15, 91 mins. In cinemas

French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed the 2021 English language film, My Son, but he is perhaps best known for his 2005 wartime drama, Joyeux Noël. Based on historic events, the film shows what happens when Germany’s crown prince sends the Imperial Opera Company’s tenor Walter Kirchhoff’ to the trenches on 14 December 1914. After his performance, the French, freezing in trenches so close they can hear, stand up and applaud and enemies unite for a brief Christmas truce. In the formulaic, but absorbing and warm hearted Driving Madeleine, Carion concocts another brief and unlikely pairing. Dany Boon and Line Renaud play two people in need of that Christmas cheer, one of whom is as conscious of death as the soldiers.

Taxi driver Charles (Boon) is not just having a bad day, but a bad career. He spends twelve hour days sitting behind the wheel of cab, driving drunks and tightwads or breathing in traffic fumes in an empty cab. When the story opens, he owes money with no prospect of repaying it, has nearly maxed out on penalty points, and has a holier-than-thou brother who, as a doctor, can pass judgment without saying a word.

When the taxi dispatcher rings with a fare on the other side of Paris, Charles declines. He reconsiders when the dispatcher tells him he can start the meter now.

In fact, Bry-sur-Marne, is a suburb of Paris and quite a hefty fare. Waiting for him outside a large house on the river with a small suitcase is a white-haired woman who gives the address of a care home in Courbevoie. When Charles warns her that the address is on the other side of Paris, she replies, ‘I know, that’s why I called you.’

Whatever else, Charles is going to make a tidy sum from this old lady. As it happens, that “whatever else” turns out to be worth a lot more to Charles than the fare.

The long ride across Paris gives Carion ample opportunity for his chalk and cheese characters to bond. Madeleine is a good talker, and if Charles is initially unreceptive to his chatty passenger, the life story she volunteers cannot help but pique his interest. Dramatised in flashbacks (with Alice Isaaz as young Madeleine), her tragic story, while a tad overwrought, manages to hold our interest, too.

Carion gives us not just Madeleine’s life story, but a “you-can’t-go-home again” sight-seeing trip down memory lane. Madeleine asks her obliging driver to stop at various locations that prove to be both traumatic (a WWII resistance memorial) and disappointing (her very changed childhood neighbourhood). Wherever we go, we are never far from a river, be it the Marne or the Seine.

If Madeleine is a good story teller, she is a good listener, too, and seems sincerely interested in “cracking” her uptight driver. Charles responds cautiously, but gradually he finds comfort in unloading what’s on his mind. He is living with the love of his life, a pretty nurse named Karine, and adores their daughter Betty, but their financial situation means he will have to sell Karine’s country home, Betty’s favourite place.

At some point in the journey we notice a shift. Instead of personal stories of the past, the two create their own adventures in the present. When Madeleine has to go for a comfort break, Charles stops his cab outside a restaurant, somewhat mortified that Madeleine is using their facilities without consuming something. When they rush back to the cab to find an irate queue of honking drivers behind them, the two giggle with glee, like naughty school kids. At another point, they stroll along the Seine, talking like old friends. And when Charles realises that Madeleine is in no hurry to get to her destination, the two decide to feast in a posh restaurant with Charles getting the tab.

While the ending is so predictable that it comes as no surprise, it’s almost certain you will shed some tears.

Charles and Madeleine might be unlikely friends, but the 95-year-old singer and actress Line Renaud (Call My Agent), whose career began in the early 1950s, and the writer-director-actor Dany Boon (Murder Mystery 1 and 2) have a long history together, with Driving Madeleine being their fourth collaboration. Boon even directed two films he appears in with Renaud: La Maison du Bonheur and Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, (Welcome to the Sticks).

It is this perceived closeness and the sincerity of the two performances that helps us forget the Driving Miss Daisy familiarity of the concept and the inherent sentimentality, here kept to an admirable minimum. And while melodramatic, the dark story Madeleine recounts is both devastating and plausible, reminding us of an age when women had few rights, were judged by gender-biased courts, and when spousal abuse and marital rape was not a crime.

While times changed over Madeleine’s long life, we still have to wonder how she came to own the large house where Charles collects her, a house that she is able to sell for a lot of money. Madeleine’s mother (we hear how her father died) was a theatre dresser, so hardly minted, and for Madeleine, a single mother, finding a decent job at age 38 with no experience cannot have been easy, particularly with a prison record (you will hear about that, too).

But how can we hold a minor quirk against a filmmaker who writes a deep and dignified starring role for a sprightly 95-year-old actress?