A rousing, well-crafted romp packed with ingenuity, duplicity, close calls and heroic gestures, “Bon Voyage” is true to its title. Centered on the hectic days in June 1940 when the French government and privileged classes hightailed it to Bordeaux before Paris fell to the Germans, pic intertwines the fortunes of half-a-dozen colorful main characters all bent on survival amidst constant emotional and political turmoil. Ambitious, multi-layered tale, comfortably awash in old-fashioned gloss and theatrical archetypes, is suspenseful fun from start to finish. Local biz should be brisk and offshore prospects look bright for this first feature by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (“Cyrano”) since “The Horseman on the Roof” (1995).
Pic’s strength is its genuinely amusing take on a situation that couldn’t have been a barrel of laughs for those who lived through it — call it the “Hogan’s Heroes” school of narrative backdrops. Script gets in its digs at French citizens and officials who were only too happy to embrace the Germans; but it mostly concentrates on the ever-shifting reality of its characters’ vaudevillesque lives.
Spoiled, coquettish movie star Viviane (Isabelle Adjani) is the toast of Paris. On the night of her new movie’s black-tie premiere, government minister Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu) indicates he’s keen on courting her, but she’s followed back to her lavish duplex apartment by an obviously disgruntled older man, Andre Arpel (Nicolas Vaude).
That same night, Frederic Roger (Gregori Derangere), a handsome, open-faced young man, receives a call at his boarding house. Turns out he and Viviane were once an item, and she now needs his help in disposing of the body of M. Arpel, who, she claims, accidentally fell to his death after she slapped him. Frederic wants to call the police but Viviane is very good at persuading men to do her bidding. Driving the deceased’s car in the rain, Frederic crashes into a police call box and the trunk pops, revealing the late M. Arpel to plentiful witnesses.
Fredric’s court-appointed lawyer, like all able-bodied men in France, has just been mobilized. Due to ship out the next day, he’s convinced he’ll be back in plenty of time to plead Frederic’s case, as “this will all be over in three weeks — nobody wants a war.” However, the attorney does mention that the stiff died of a gunshot wound. Frederic, who’s a budding novelist, passes the time in his cell writing.
The day before the Germans are due in Paris, Gallic authorities empty the prisons, handcuffing the inmates in pairs for transfer to the provinces. Well-mannered Frederic is cuffed to resourceful petty criminal Raoul (Yvan Attal) who seizes the opportunity to escape by picking the lock with a fork. Now free, Frederic determines that Viviane has joined the exodus to Bordeaux, and he heads south. On the train, he meets no-nonsense academic Camille (Virginie Ledoyen), an assistant to eminent physicist Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle) of the College de France.
In Bordeaux, the elegant Hotel Splendide is packed to the rafters with celebs and aristocrats from Paris. Viviane, who’s since shacked up with Beaufort, spots the no-longer-imprisoned Frederic on the street. So begins a frenzied period of jockeying for position and security before France capitulates.
Storytelling is tight and jaunty, with thesps obviously having a blast. Adjani’s Viviane shows a mercenary command of the well-placed sobbing fit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent era. Ledoyen scores as a brainy broad who wouldn’t mind taking off her glasses for Frederic; and, as the latter, Derangere is enormously appealing as a framed lad who learns to rise to the occasion in perilous times.
Among other thesps, Attal is lawless panache personified as Raoul, and Peter Coyote shows up as a well-connected Anglo journalist who has the hots for Viviane. Crowd scenes are impressive, chases and fist fights nicely staged. Gabriel Yared’s score is atmospheric but never overbearing. Production design is evocative, and both lensing and editing are aces. In fact, entire package is ultra-pro.