BON VOYAGE —–senses—of humor and perspective— get us through a lot. Soldiers, cops and doctors use graveyard jokes to survive the fear and chaos of mayhem. Less graphic but equally wounding, the agony of failed relationships and personal debacle builds a sort of callous but flexible muscle that allows mordant irony to make shrugging off defeat a bit easier the next time. Community or national upheavals like War are confusing hell to endure, but the mass-scale idiocy, failure of logic and frantic flailing can seem—when enough time goes by—like a cosmic joke.
France, Spring 1940. Faster than you can spit-take your escargot and gasp “Which way to the coast?”, it’s obvious the have-it-together German’s are coming, the government is collapsing, and it’s every monsieur for himself. In the sudden refugee flood from Paris to Bordeaux, a swirl of disparate, desperate characters from several levels of society cross paths, disguise identities, form alliances, and discover their limits and potential in an upended social and political order. Authority reveals itself empty, knaves turn hero, fancy, farce and fights jostle in a democratic disharmony that has the kinetic flow of Hitchcock crossed with Sturges mixed by Wilder.
A hapless writer (Grégorie Derangère), jailed taking a murder rap for a famous actress he loves (Isabelle Adjani) bolts from the slam with a street-smart cell mate (Yvan Attal). Their flight collides with a physics student (Virginie Ledoyen) trying to get heavy water out of the country before the Nazis can grab it. An overwhelmed but pragmatic politician (Gerard Depardieu), a too-sly reporter (Peter Coyote) and sundry folk rich, poor, shady and noble mingle in the headless mob, trying to decide whether to give up or fight back, profit or protect.
Though it’s set during a global military cataclysm—the biggest and worst one so far (give us time)–calling this gorgeous, brilliantly realized 2003 French epic a ‘war movie’ would dissuade many from watching, expecting the usual array of explosions, barked man-talk and Uplifting
con job Message.
Marvelously directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, the bon bon rich script he co-wrote with esteemed novelist Patrick Modiano ingeniously melds farce, wit, pratfalls, romance, political posturing and the spectacle of plight, desperate chases and escapes, spies and fights, collapse and resistance.
The casting is a coup: Derangère stunned pop-eyed by constantly reversing fortune, Ledoyen seductive in her honesty, Attal a quick-thinking rascal with charm. Depardieu interprets the buffeted minister with survivors instinct couched in aplomb, Adjani (47 playing and looking 25) the shallow-sad siren propelling much of the interplay.
The art direction, props and costumes are exquisite, the crowd scenes teeming with energy, Rappeneau filling the frame with constant eye-catching activity: visually the production is a knockout of breadth and depth, so fluidly integrated with the shenanigans and perils of the engaging players that the authenticity feels baked in.
Either it was poorly marketed or people were just tuned out by all the year’s flashy fantasy action epics, but the beautifully rendered $27,300,000 film only took in maybe half-that worldwide, not even doing very well in France (available figures differ widely, so we’ll not hazard a pinpoint). A shame. Like director Rappeneau’s 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac and 1995 The Horseman On The Roof, I’d call this 114 minute mélange de guerre an overlooked classic of French historical cinema—and a whole lot of fun.
The rich old-feel cinematography credits Thierry Arbogast, the score is the work of Gabriel Yared. With Jean-Marc Stehlé, Aurore Clément, Xavier De Guillebon, Edith Scob, Michel Vuillermoz, Nicolas Vaude.
* Rappeneau: “The work is really in the writing. I write again and again and again. I edit, I design each shot, and so by the time I arrive on set, I’m completely precise and prepared. But in my direction with actors? They have a little room. The precision is in the writing and preparation.”