Bon Voyage, the latest film from renowned French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, is remarkably clever in its goal to satirize France's shameful surrender in World War Two. The story is complex and takes a while to get going, but becomes very interesting when the plot starts to develop. It is June of 1940 and Viviane Denvers (Isabelle Adjani) is France's most popular film actress. She's a cunning vixen that is expert in using her charms to get her way with men. Frederic (Gregori Derangere) is a poor writer struggling to make a living in Paris. He's known Viviane since childhood and has been smitten by her his entire life. One night Viviane calls Frederic to her apartment in desperation. She has killed a man, claiming self-defense. Frederic foolishly offers to get rid of the body by driving the man's car. Unfortunately for Frederic it's a stormy night and he crashes the car near a crowd of people, who come to his aid and find the body stuffed in the trunk.
Now Frederic is languishing away in prison and Viviane has completely abandoned him. His fate changes when the Germans invade France and all the prisoners are let loose to fight. Frederic, along with another escaped inmate, decides to go to the French town of Bordeaux. That's where the French government, Paris elite, and Viviane Denvers have fled to avoid the Nazi's. Viviane has become the mistress of a powerful government minister, Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu). No one knows of her crime and Frederic must confront her about it. The plot starts to come into focus when Frederic meets Camille (the stunning Virginie Ledoyen) and Professor Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle) on the train to Bordeaux. They are physicists with important cargo that must be safely taken to England. This is where I stop explaining the story. Everything I've mentioned is just the prelude to an elaborate storyline that kicks off once the central characters are all introduced. It's pretty entertaining on a comedic and historical level. The film just takes half an hour to get to this point.
Rappeneau is delivering a brilliantly disguised history lesson. The French capitulation to the German's in World War Two has long been a mark of shame on the entire country. The story, while entirely fictitious, is historically accurate as far as the settings and events are concerned. Rappeneau shows the entire spectrum of French reaction in Bordeaux. The entire city is in chaos as all of Paris has run there to escape the invasion. The government and the bourgeois intellectuals show despicable cowardice in the way they deal with the situation. It's comical, but this is where Rappeneau totally succeeds. The people in charge are laughable in their predicament, choosing to acquiesce while their country falls around them. On the other hand you have the people who want to fight and defend their home. They have honor, but are a small minority in the bustle of the town. The genius of the screenplay is integrating the actress, the lover, the physicists, the Germans, and the traitors into the situation. It keeps the audience entertained while telling a story most people outside of France are completely unaware of.
The writing in Bon Voyage is superb. There's so much going on, so much to explain, it's a real accomplishment exposing such a labyrinthine plot in this setting. It's also pretty humorous and dramatic at the same time. The situation is a mess, you have to laugh at all these people bumbling around at the same time. The primary writing credits go to Rappeneau and Gilles Marchand. Their screenplay should be studied in writing textbooks. They expertly weave the story into the history of the time period without getting bogged down. I've mentioned that the film takes a while to get going. It's justified with the payoffs as the film progresses. This is not a simple story that can be casually watched. The writing is like an orchestral performance, many pieces that come together and build to the finale.
Ensemble acting is the star of the film. Frederic is the protagonist, but all the characters are equally important to the film. No one is singled out for the star treatment here; it's an ensemble piece from beginning to end. The cast is an all-star list of French actors and they do great work. There are no weak points in the acting. Every actor has a unique role and plays it well. There's not a lot of character development, but that's all right in this story. The film would be ten hours long if Rappeneau took the time to find out everyone's motivations. His skill as a director is evident in the performances of his actors. No one steals the show, everyone plays their part, and the end result speaks volumes on screen.
Bon Voyage is in French with English subtitles. Do not see this film if reading subtitles is a problem. The film has a lot going on, so attention has to be paid to understand it. The film has the distinctive flavor of a European filmmaker and the humor might be lost to the general American audience. I thought it was interesting and witty, but realize this is not a film for mass consumption. It's a worthy trip to the theatre for the hardcore cinemaphile and fans of Rappeneau's previous films.