(R) 4 Stars
The great writer Graham Greene is said to have considered some of his fictions “novels” in the high and mighty sense of artistic ambition, and others “entertainments.” The entertainments tended to be ripping yarns of suspense and intrigue — stories that derived their pleasure from Greene’s mastery of narrative momentum. In retrospect, one can’t help but think that Greene was putting too fine a point on things — sometimes the pleasures of a great story well told are all the art we need. This is certainly true in the case of Bon Voyage, the French film by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, featuring Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu.
Set in 1940, as France is falling before German invaders, Bon Voyage is an extravagantly plotted, head-long romance about fate that revels in its mastery of cinematic storytelling. As the Germans approach Paris, thousands of people flee the city for the south of France. The barely contained chaos of this flight provides the backdrop and credibility for the extraordinary series of coincidences and accidents that propel Bon Voyage’s Swiss watch-style plot.
The space provided here is barely enough for a synopsis of this film’s first act. Let it suffice to say that the action begins with a murder, turns on efforts to prevent the Nazis from taking hold of a supply of heavy water that could enable them to be first with an atomic bomb, and involves a marvelously attractive ensemble cast fairly humming with unrequited love, duplicity, willfulness and daring.
As that list of adjectives might suggest, Bon Voyage is so eventful — so richly entertaining — it defies generic categorization. For your price of admission, you get a comedy, a thriller, a historical melodrama and an adventure story. So many chances, in other words, for director Rappeneau to strike a sour note or miss a beat. Remarkably, this never happens. Throughout this tonal kaleidoscope, Rappeneau is as light, yet sure, on his feet as a tale-spinning Fred Astaire.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau is 72 years old. He came up in the 1950s and ’60s as a kind of mid-list New Wave director, overshadowed by such contemporaries as Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol. Like his New Wave colleagues, Rappeneau was smitten by the cinematic flair of Alfred Hitchcock and, like Hitchcock, he has now made a film without any wasted effort. From start to finish, Rappeneau invests each shot with an engaging amount of information capable of simultaneously amusing and seducing us. Bon Voyage is a tour de force — a masterful cinematic entertainment.