Pack your bags and set out with Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees for a whirlwind journey through wartime France in the company of femmes fatales, wanted murderers, and Nazi spies. Oh, and did we mention that it's a comedy?
Vive la France, vive l'amour!
Bon Voyage joyously leapfrogs across genre boundaries to become a deluxe hyphenate: a French comedy-drama-adventure-romance-suspense-war movie. From this string of categories one might conclude that the film is a hopeless mishmash, but instead it's more like a lost classic of the '40s, with the breakneck pace of screwball comedy and the action and tension of good espionage films. Movie stars, Nazis, physicists, escaped convicts—they're all here. With so much going on, Bon Voyage is a journey so diverting that it flies by.
Facts of the Case
France in 1939 is filled with anxiety that war is imminent. Nevertheless, war is not the paramount concern of film star Viviane Denvert (Isabelle Adjani, Camille Claudel). She has a rather nasty mess that needs cleaning up…a mess that once had a heartbeat. She calls on old beau Frédéric Auger (Grégori Derangère, Marie from the Bay of Angels), an aspiring novelist, to help her tidy up. He heeds the call of his lady in distress, but thanks to a run of bad luck his chivalry lands him in jail.
Once the war starts and the Germans march on Paris, however, Frédéric gets an unexpected chance at liberty. He and fellow escapee Raoul (Yvan Attal, My Wife Is an Actress) set out for Bordeaux, where Viviane and the rest of the Paris elite are fleeing for refuge. Viviane is accompanied by her new protector, a powerful government minister (Gérard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac), but another admirer is becoming insistent: the slightly shady journalist who always has his ears pricked for secrets (Peter Coyote, A Walk to Remember). Also on her way to Bordeaux is pretty young physicist Camille (Virginie Ledoyen, The Beach), who is assisting brilliant Professor Kopolski in his attempt to transport a secret cache of "heavy water" to England and out of the Germans' reach. As politicians haggle over the terms of France's surrender to Germany, love, deception, and politics collide in increasingly feverish confrontations, culminating in a desperate race to keep the heavy water from falling into the wrong hands.
Bon Voyage is one of the most ambitious films I've seen in recent years: ambitious in its yoking together of comedy, suspense, and melodrama, and in its scope, since it shows us France at a tumultuous time in her history, the start of the German occupation. Yet even with this most serious of backdrops, Bon Voyage has the heart—and the pacing—of a caper film. The fast-paced action and rapid-fire dialogue keep things moving at a brisk pace, whether we're watching a chase scene, a fist fight, or a lovers' quarrel. The mood can shift from knockabout comedy to taut thriller in a heartbeat, which keeps the viewer from becoming complacent: One never knows what the film is going to do next. Even in the midst of tense scenes of pursuit there are glints of humor. This mixture of tones may put off some viewers, but the writing, directing, and acting are so skillful that it always works.
Noted director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (The Horseman on the Roof) has assembled a stellar cast that includes everyone from French cinema legends like Depardieu and Adjani to relative unknowns like Derangère, first-time actors (Jean-Marc Stehlé, as the Professor), and wholly unexpected faces like Peter Coyote (whose comfort with the French language is impressive). It's a credit to both the actors and the director that all the members of this eclectic cast seem to be on the same page and working at the same high level. Derangère brings the unassuming appeal of Jimmy Stewart (to whom Rappeneau compares him) to his role as the well-intentioned naïf who gets in over his head. He progresses nicely into an unintentional hero, starting out absorbed with his own (compelling) concerns but gradually coming to desire to help his country—and, not coincidentally, Camille. Adjani, better known for heavy dramatic roles, is priceless as one of the film's most broadly comedic characters, the self-absorbed Viviane, who uses her doe eyes and acting skills to get men to do all her dirty work for her.
Creating a winsome contrast to this scheming temptress is the earnest, straightforward Camille. Ledoyen is both funny and touching as she shows this passionate idealist falling in love for the first time with something besides her country. Depardieu, looking strangely unlike himself with slicked-back hair, nicely underplays as the wrong-headed politician distracted by romantic troubles. In what is essentially a comic supporting role, Attal evokes a sense of friendly mischief as Raoul, whose quick thinking and native cunning help save his friends at more than one pivotal moment. Coyote brings a quiet but effective sense of menace to the inscrutable journalist Alex Winckler, and although French viewers may feel that his Americanness sticks out, I felt that he harmonized well with his French fellow actors. Even the small roles are cast with distinctive and talented actors, including some who are known for important French films of the past, such as Edith Scob (Eyes Without a Face).
The story itself is so absorbing, and the pace whirls us along so quickly, that one may not even be fully aware of how beautifully this film has been crafted. It offers us a visual landscape of great beauty, from noir-ish rain-spangled streets to elegant Art Deco interiors, as well as the sweep of sequences that are more epic in scope and show the disorder that entered France with the German army: fleeing multitudes crowding the streets and bridges, displaced families by the hundred living out of their cars, prisoners thronging out of jail in a massive exodus. Aurally the landscape is equally rich. The score by Gabriel Yared alternates between lush, sweeping romantic melodies and a suspenseful theme that uses scudding violins to create a sense of mounting tension. The transfer, I am happy to say, presents both these crucial elements beautifully: Video is clear and detailed, with deep velvety blacks and not a speckle to be seen until the end credits. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track envelops us in the powerful music but presents all the dialogue with clarity; in a few places I thought the dialogue volume could have been bumped up a bit, but since I was viewing the disc with the English subtitles on, this was not a real drawback.
A word on the subtitles: For the first five minutes or so you will think that they aren't functioning. The film is selective in its use of subtitles, not offering us translations of much dialogue that could be considered dispensable, such as film dialogue at the movie premiere at which the first scene takes place and, later in the film, lines spoken by children. My smattering of French told me that nothing crucial was being imparted at these moments, but some viewers may be irritated at not knowing what's being said at all times. Also, during the director's commentary the subtitles offer their own frustrations. Rappeneau carries on the commentary in French for the most part (after making a graceful apology in English for doing so), so the onscreen translation of his remarks replaces the subtitles for the film dialogue. However, when he pauses or falls silent, the subtitles pick up the film dialogue, and this can be disorienting, as if the commentary has suddenly gone off topic. Moreover, for no discernible reason, the commentary subtitles sometimes appear at the top of the screen rather than the bottom. Again, this is disorienting, but it is not a serious problem.
As the only extra besides the film trailer and a handful of trailers for other Columbia TriStar releases, Rappenau's commentary carries quite a burden, but it is both informative and interesting. Rappeneau discloses that as a director he was greatly influenced by American films of the '40s, and that influence is certainly felt in Bon Voyage. He offers technical information, pointing out the special effects shots used in various scenes, but he also gives us a more personal perspective when he discusses the actors, many of whom he has worked with before or (as in the case of Coyote) knew as friends. He also discusses the actual historical events that he drew on in developing the film. This is a solid commentary and will enhance the film's appeal for French film or '40s film buffs.
For fans of comedy, suspense, and World War II dramas, Bon Voyage is a very enjoyable journey. It's ambitious without being self-important, and it's so handsomely mounted one could watch it just for the production values. But the bottom line is that it's fun. Those who aren't lovers of foreign films will probably be content with a rental, but for many others this is a film that will reward repeat viewings and is eminently collectible.
I take great pleasure in pronouncing the defendant not guilty. Frédéric's sentence is hereby converted to time served, so he can get back to working on his novel and saving his country.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau
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