On the Wandering Paths

Original title or aka: Sur Les Chemins Noirs

Director: Denis Imbert
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Josephine Japy, Izia Higelin, Anny Duperey, Jonathan Zaccai, Dylan Robert
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 95 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes, coarse language and a sex scene

Pierre is a famous writer and explorer. But one drunken night, a terrible fall leaves him in a coma. When he wakes up, barely standing up and against everyone’s advice, he decides to explore France on foot, along the smallest paths.

The English title highlights the various paths taken by the central character Pierre and his 1300km walk across France from the mountains in the east to the Atlantic in the west: wandering paths. The French title with its emphasis on black and dark, offers a more sinister perspective on the track as well as Pierre looking back on the meandering paths of his life, his career as a writer, and an accident that almost destroyed him.

The audience is invited to accompany Pierre, having recovered from a severe fall and injuries, on this walk through France. This affects the audience in two ways. First, we are invited into areas of the French countryside that we have rarely or never seen before – isolated landscapes, extraordinarily rugged, sometimes barren, sometimes alive, the wonder of the photography exciting us. Second, we are invited to share the life of Pierre, a kind of man-about-town writer, chronicling his travels, acclaimed by the public, but careless in his way which leads to his devastating fall and injuries. As Pierre walks, there are many flashbacks to the past, so we come to understand him better, not admiring his past self particularly, but growing in admiration of his determination (though he should let up at times on his stubbornness) and his perseverance.

At times, this is a lonely walk. There is plenty of time to share Pierre’s recollections and observations. However, there are also many encounters along the way – a young woman selling cheeses to any passers-by, an isolated farm offering some relief, an old man reminiscing about the countryside and settlement after World War II, family heritage, shepherds, and the pressures of modern developments, an evening at a monastery, a silent meal with the monks, listening to the  reading in the refectory. He is joined by a close friend for some days, fortuitously because he has an epileptic fit and needs medical attention. Another time he is joined by his sister, playfully, reminiscing. There is a small town, the young man behind the counter of a bakery and delicatessen, a town progressing towards abandonment.

There is great humanity in this story. Pierre sees his walk as a recovery of part of his past life which seemed beyond recovery, but also seeing it as a chance of some recuperation of life, as well as a possibility of some redemption. As he nears the Atlantic at the end of the walk, there is a vision of the monastery of Mont San Michele, rising majestically – something of a transcendent vision of achievement.

Pierre is played by the celebrated French actor Jean de Sade, who has had a strong career in French cinema and then, rather unexpectedly, winning the Best Actor Oscar in 2011 for The Artist. This enabled him to continue his career even more successfully, internationally in such films as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men, as well as continued presence in French cinema, The Connection, a film of the November 2015 massacres in Paris. The story, based on fact, is from Sylvain Tesson, his adventures were also narrated in the film, The Velvet Queen, on the search for snow leopards in Tibet.

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