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Romantic ‘Bon Voyage’ is a trip worth taking

Stewart Oksenhorn

Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau appears to have a nostalgic longing for a time that has passed in the cinema.

Rappeneau’s “Bon Voyage,” set on the eve of the German occupation of Paris, opens with a scene in a movie theater that bears little resemblance to today’s modern infiniplex. The filmgoers are dressed to the nines; every seat in the huge, plush theater is filled.

“Bon Voyage” likewise closes at the cinema, and though it is a very different sort of theater, it also captures a form of filmmaking and film-watching from another age.

The film on the screen – also “Bon Voyage” – is in black and white and unabashedly romantic; the scene we see is of a classically beautiful woman, impeccably done up, singing. The movie theater itself is dark and unadorned, half-filled. We get the sense that those in attendance are there to watch a film – not eat popcorn and hang out with their friends – and there is romance in that.

Even when it is not reflecting on the movie-going experience, Rappeneau’s “Bon Voyage” reaches back to an older style of filmmaking. In these days, when cinematic thrills are delivered mainly through stunts, computer-generated images, guns and bombs and things leaping out of closets, “Bon Voyage” revels in raising the pulse with a different set of tools.

The cinematography, by Thierry Arbogast, is lush and grand. The costumes and sets are fabulous. The actors are mostly gorgeous; those who are not are at least made up to be interesting to look at.

The pace of the movie is breathless, with barely a second given to catching its breath. There is one gun shootout, and two fistfights, both involving objects or bodies being thrown through glass. But for the most part, “Bon Voyage” is a thrill ride that uses the least spectacular devices it can.

As a story and in its tone, “Bon Voyage” recalls “Casablanca” and its ilk in that it is a full-service cinematic experience. It is a love story, a farcical comedy and a war tale; it is a portrait of personal lives but captures the bigger picture of a historic moment.

The story opens in Paris, where the movie star Viviane (Isabelle Adjani) has killed an overzealous lover, and beckoned a former lover, Frederic (Gregori Derangere) to dispose of the body. On a dark and stormy night, plans go awry, and Frederic finds himself in prison as Viviane weasels her way out of culpability.

Cut to several months later. The Germans are advancing, the French government is grappling with the decision to fight or permit occupation, and the upper classes and top officials are fleeing to the relative comfort of Bordeaux.

Among those heading south are Viviane and her current lover, the dour Minister of the Interior, Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu in an uncustomary role); Frederic, who has escaped prison; Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle), a professor in possession of several containers of heavy water, essential to the making of a nuclear bomb; and Kopolski’s lovely assistant, Camille (Virginie Ledoyen).

In Bordeaux, overrun with the upper crust, the various sparks conflate to create a mix of comedy and drama, romance and violence. At the center is Frederic. He is torn between Viviane, the object of his childhood crush, and the more grounded and honest Camille.

A fugitive, Frederic dodges the police as he tries to save his country by helping Professor Kopolski escape with his cargo. He trades blows with German spies, conspires with top French officials, collaborates with hoodlums. It’s all so much that one can scarcely keep in mind that Frederic is an aspiring novelist, with a promising manuscript tucked under his arm.

The manic pace might detract from “Bon Voyage.” It never becomes convoluted but neither does it allow time for sorting out the pieces. Still, if the goal is old-style cinematic fun, “Bon Voyage” is a heck of a trip.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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