Bon Voyage

May, 2004, Thriller


If the word insouciant weren’t French, this movie would require altering the rules of language; how else to describe this Gallic confection that blends humor, glamour, slapstick and romance in Paris during the early days of the summer of 1940, when Hitler's invasion abruptly altered the lives of the jaded elite of that most urbane of cities? Lavishly shot and hopelessly complex, director Jean-Paul Rappeneau scrambles stunning sets, gorgeous period wardrobes and a huge cast headed by Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu in this rambling tale of murder, unrequited love, "heavy water", German spies and poached Turbot.

Adjani, (The Story of Adele H, Camille Claudel) plays Viviane Denvers, a French film star who shoots her annoying lover and then enlists Raoul, (a childhood friend who's worshipped her for years) to dispose of the body. He's caught in the act, takes the rap for Viviane and heads to the slammer just as most able-bodied Frenchman are being called up for military service. Months later, as the German offensive threatens the nation's capital, Raul escapes from a prison-inmate transfer program and heads south, along with thousands of other instant refugees. In the overcrowded train taking him to safety, he meets Camille, the young assistant to Professor Kopolski, a physicist trying to deliver the country's stock of uranium-enriched heavy water to the British so they'll get the bomb first. With a complete disregard for historic accuracy, the director breezily allows Raoul, the professor and his pert assistant to continuously run across the ever resourceful Viviane, now mistress to Jean-Etienne Beaufort, (Depardieu) who's role as Minister of the Interior puts him at center stage in the efforts to negotiate a ceasefire with the Germans and establish a puppet government in Vichy. As the professor and his precious cargo are shepparded to the coast and a waiting British ship, Raoul discovers that Viviane's real skill is self-absorption while the brave, selfless and attractive Camille is just the kind of girl he should slip back into the country to see after he's deposited the Professor and his cargo in England and finished his training as a spy…

All of this is just an excuse to display some of the most gorgeous sets and costumes you'll see on screen this year, presented with meticulous attention to detail. From suitcases to vintage automobiles to just the right vintage, (1928) of purloined Bordeaux, the director manages the Herculean task of faithfully re-creating a chaotic moment in French history. This movie bursts with so much fascinating detail it's initially quite easy to ignore the cartoon-ish plot that lies immediately behind it. 

Adjani, (sporting a luscious Channel wardrobe and eyes as big as Frisbees) peers out at her successive conquests from under jet-black shoulder length hair with just the right amount of petulance; as the conniving object of male sexual fantasy, she's letter perfect. Depardieu's commanding physical presence infuses his smarmy politician with equal parts of guile and self-delusion, making his desperate machinations simultaneously cunning and foolish. Unfortunately, they're the only two characters with a shred of honest vitality; everyone else in this sophisticated confection is made out of treacle, even the lovesick German spy who straps Viviane and her matching luggage into his roadster for her return to the city on the Seine. The storyline, which lurches uneasily from romance to low comedy to melodrama, remains too farfetched to be taken seriously--which is surely Rappeneau's intent--but the devastation of his country at that agonizing moment in its still recent past provides a troubling and ultimately inappropriate background for this lighthearted, inconsequential amalgam of movie genres. For all that, the sheer scope of the director's vision is interesting and his ability to fill the screen with wondrously beautiful images makes this one pleasantly diverting. See it for no other reason than watching Ms. Adjani bat those alluring eyes at her conga-line of suitors; it's worth the price of admission.


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