Thursday, April 08, 2004

Bon Voyage

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (preview)

Bon Voyage is a farce and a caper set against the backdrop of the imminent occupation of Paris in 1940. That's a hard one to pull off - you've got to be pretty much perfect - but co-writer/director Jean-Paul Rappeneau manages it, and as a result produces one of the best pure popcorn movies I've seen since Brotherhood of the Wolf. It feels against the grain to suggest people go to a French movie for escapism, but they've gotten very good at it.

The film opens in a movie theater. The audience laughs, as a comedy of apparent genius unspools on the screen. One woman (Isabelle Adjani) is not; she is Viviane Denvers, the movie's star. She attracts the attention of Minister Jean-Étienne Beaufort (Gérard Depardieu), but also of another, who follows her home. Next, we meet Frédéric (Grégori Derangère), a young writer and old friend, whom she calls for help, though she hasn't talked with him for years. Helping her will land him in trouble, though. Two months later, as Paris is being evacuated, he and Raoul (Yvan Attal), a friend with dubious respect for the law, meet a pretty young physicist (Virginie Ledoyen) on a train south to Bordeaux, where the government has moved. Her mentor is not only a "Jew without country", but his work is something the Nazis would very much like to get their hands on. She seizes on Frédéric's friendship with Beaufort to try and arrange passage to England for her carload of people and cargo. This must be kept secret, which will be difficult, as Viviane's previous beau (Peter Coyote) is a reporter, and is still hanging close.

I've left out details, because a great deal of the fun of this movie is watching it unfold. The movie is split down the middle between comedy and adventure, and plot twists often double as jokes. The film moves quickly, but often in circles. That's okay, though, since it's a pleasant back-and-forth, and even if not every scene advances the plot, it's never boring and always enjoyable. The director makes a conscious decision to maintain a playful tone despite the setting. It's not that the villains aren't threatening, it's that the heroes are too lovable and concerned with their own issues for the pressure to really get to them. I've read a review or two that found this disrespectful, or can't even conceive of the story as a comedy, but there must have been isolated bits of absurdity amid everything during WWII; even Schindler's List has occasional comic relief.

And there are hidden depths. Viviane is comically self-centered, though it becomes less comic toward the end. Rauol displays surprising heroism despite his early apparent amorality. Beaumont's desire for peace is almost disastrous. The movie moves at the speed of farce, but it's far from an empty one.

The cast is top-notch. The make-up folks probably deserve Oscars; both Adjani and Attal are playing characters roughly half their age (48-year-old Adjani must be hiding a picture in her closet as the young starlet). Derangère spends much of the movie looks confused or surprised, but he's got good comic timing and charm. Virginie Ledoyen is luminous.

This movie was apparently submitted as France's Oscar entry for 2003; the nominating committee may have found it too light and fluffy. It's a pure bit of entertainment, with few harsh edges (its American PG-13 rating could easily be PG). Indeed, it shares a certain sensibility with movies of the thirties and forties; it's fast-paced and witty, beautiful and exciting. It's fun, pure and simple.

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