In a vast Paris movie palace a glittering premiere of a comedy is taking place with the formally dressed audience laughing at every joke. The camera picks up the one person not joining in the merriment, a beautiful but tense young woman sitting in a box seat in the dead center of the balcony. She makes furtive glances at an older man (Nicolas Pignon) glowering at her from a seat in the orchestra below.
The young woman is Viviane Denvert (Isabelle Adjani), the star of the movie, and the angry man is a former lover-protector blackmailing her over a matter of some missing jewels. Moments later the man will wind up dead in the living room of Viviane's white-on-white Art Deco duplex apartment; she will summon discarded lover Frédéric (Grégori Derangère), a handsome but impoverished writer, to dispose of the corpse; and "Bon Voyage" is off to a giddy start, with a nonstop flow of interconnected high adventures — and high comedy — to follow.
The fall of France to Hitler's invading army in June 1940 seems an unlikely backdrop for farce, but director Jean-Paul Rappeneau and his clutch of writers headed by Patrick Modiano know exactly what they're doing. Not for a second do they play down France's humiliation and the dangers and grimness that the more prescient citizens know lie ahead. Instead they realize that in the chaos of the mass exodus of Parisians for the south of France before the Germans arrive anything can happen, especially for the truly daring. Even though Frédéric's willingness to come to Viviane's rescue swiftly plunges him into big trouble it connects him with Raoul (Yvan Attal), a bold crook with a brave heart.
Not long into this most exhilarating and enjoyable of movies, it becomes reminiscent of such vintage jewels as Carol Reed's simultaneously thrilling and amusing "Night Train to Munich," in which Rex Harrison's devil-may-care British agent is intent on rescuing a Czech scientist who escaped the Nazis to London only to be kidnapped by them and taken to Berlin.
Adjani's Viviane is deliciously shallow but steely. The way she bats her eyes and feigns emotion is so transparent that ironically this makes her more adorable — and all the more in need of protection from the men she attracts like flies. Even France's minister of the interior (Gérard Depardieu), at the moment of his country's great crisis, makes time for the glamorous, seductive Viviane, who is also pursued by a forceful if shady journalist (Peter Coyote). In the meantime, Frédéric needs to figure out whether he really loves Viviane while he and Raoul are soon caught up in trying to help the lovely, brainy Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) get her eminent physicist professor (Jean-Marc Stehlé) out of the country.
In the course of the film, which is filled with Nazi spies to be outwitted, tempestuous romances, chases, races, knockabout comedy and above all a gallant spirit, its assorted characters converge on Bordeaux, with the minister of the interior and Viviane ensconced in the hallowed if jam-packed Hotel Splendide while the gracious Madame Arbesault (Edith Scob) manages to find room for Frédéric and Raoul in her crowded stone manor house.
There is of course a sobering subtext inherent in the material that sets off its countless escapades, and throughout it all Frédéric, indisputably the film's hero and central figure, experiences a discovery of self. The cast, which includes Aurore Clement as a self-absorbed rich woman, symbolic of the upper crust, is a glittering ensemble, but in "Bon Voyage" Grégori Derangère emerges as a star, as tall and good-looking as Gary Cooper and as breezy as Maurice Chevalier. From the director of the memorable "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1990) with Depardieu and the romantic "The Horseman on the Roof" (1995), "Bon Voyage" lives up to its title and then some.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some violence
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare for mature children; violence is brief, adult situations discreet.
Isabelle Adjani...Viviane Denvert
Gérard Depardieu...Beaufort, minister of the interior
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a France 2 Cinéma and France 3 Cinéma presentation of a Canal Plus production with the support of La Région Ile de France. Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Producers Michèle & Laurent Petin. Screenplay by Rappeneau and Patrick Modiano; co-writers Jérôme Tonnerre, Rappeneau, Gilles Marchand, Julien Rappeneau. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor Maryline Monthieux. Music Gabriel Yared. Costumes and production designer Catherine Leterrier. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
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