Bon Voyage

| April 10, 2004

Paris 1940, the eve of the Nazi invasion, might not be everyone’s first choice for the setting of a farce, but Jean-Paul Rappeneau found it ripe and alluring. His Bon Voyage revels in period ambiance, charm, and wreaks merry havoc with a backward wink to caper comedies of the 1940s.
The story revolves around Viviane Denvert, a young starlet played by Isabelle Adjani, who uses her beauty and tears to manipulate the men who pursue her. After a heated argument, she kills one of them, a nasty schemer named Arpel, and enlists the help of another to help bury the body. The man, a young writer named Frederick Auger (played by Gregori Derangere), crashes the car en route, and is pinned for the murder.
When the Nazis descend, the prison breaks open, and Frederick escapes. He joins the mass exodus for Bordeaux and finds Viviane at the Hotel Splendide, where the rich vie with the commoners for rooms and restaurant tables. There, she is courted by a politician bent on peace with Germany (Gerard Depardieu), and a deceitful journalist (Peter Coyote) who may or may not be a German spy. Frederick begs Viviane to clear his name, but she fears a potential scandal would ruin her budding career.
Meanwhile, Frederick himself is pursued by a beautiful young student (played by Virginie Ledoyen) who needs to immigrate with her professor to England. The professor holds the formula to “heavy water,” a key ingredient to make the atom bomb, and if he falls into Nazi hands, the war would be lost.
High pitched and far fetched, Bon Voyage gleefully sets up a series of pratfalls, traps, and double-crosses that would seem irrelevant in the face of Nazi invasion. Nevertheless, the actors hurl themselves through each scene with frenzied abandon. There’s a lot of running, pacing and gasping, and Rappeneau surmises that if he keeps things moving fast enough, we won’t notice the rather thin subtext.
And he’s right. The film balances the multiple narratives and the large ensemble beautifully. The plot twists are plenty, but the actors do fine work so the story never derails. There are moments when the dialogue repeats itself, the plot goes nowhere, and the hysterics hit the ceiling, but it’s a romp, not a costume drama, and such moments afford us time to catch our breath.
The lustrous production design gilds each scene with sunlit streets and richly upholstered rooms. Gabriel Yared’s score tastefully aligns the film’s tone and provides a nice finishing polish. The acting is uniformly excellent; Adjani in particular makes a spoiled, shallow glamourpuss surprisingly sympathetic, and scores a coup by embodying a girl half her age.
Most interesting, though, is Rappeneau’s handling of crowd scenes. In the theater opening, the prison break, the train stations, the restaurant fight, and the flight from Paris, Rappeneau conducts each as a ballet of chaos. He finds rhyme in random movements, and the surging masses become breathtaking. The aesthetics not only bring a satiric edge to the panic, but also spell out important information for the character submerged within it.
Rappeneau’s critique is fairly obvious and gentle–that in the face of imminent danger, people still cling to their class distinctions, as if power and pedigree could afford them better chances of survival. By the end, such snobbery gets Viviane into serious trouble. But throughout, the theme is treated more like window dressing than substance, and there are too many other distractions working against it. In most instances, it is submerged in the clatter or stretched beyond recognition.
But to point out the cracks in the mantle feels like wasted energy. Bon Voyage is a masterful piece of filmmaking, and deserves to be enjoyed. Indeed, it may court a wider audience the French have wanted for so long, since this plays against the expectations of the “art house” moniker, and aims for nostalgia, beauty, and laughs–things for which the French have not previously been known. The smiles here are infectious, and everyone is having a good time.

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