“Just what we need, a little escapism!” Minister of the Interior Jean-Etienne Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu) exclaims at the beginning of “Bon Voyage,” perfectly setting the stage for director Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s tale of wartime intrigue and romance. The film is set against the backdrop of the 1940 German invasion of France, which initially calls to mind a certain Humphrey Bogart movie with similar themes and settings. Rest assured, however, that “Bon Voyage” is no “Casablanca” — far from it. Despite the seriousness of war and constant threat of danger that the film’s characters encounter, the final product is a witty, stylized combination of humor and drama that is charming, but not much more.
Most of the humor and effervescent wit of the film comes from the nuttily complex plot and the interactions between the two principal characters, beautiful movie star Viviane Denvert (Isabelle Adjani) and aspiring novelist Frederic Auger (Gregori Derangere). The 42-year-old Adjani does an amazing job of portraying a glamorous young diva; from her first entrance, her stunning eyes and wistful smile make the audience honestly believe that virtually every male character is practically obsessed with her. Derangere, however, certainly holds his own as a besotted lover who helps Viviane cover up a murder and unwittingly takes the fall for her crime.
In the chaos of the invasion, Auger escapes from prison and pursues Viviane who, along with her new lover — Minister Beaufort — and seemingly the whole of wealthy Parisian society, has fled to the “Hotel Splendide” in Bordeaux.
Rappeneau’s portrayal of the wealthy, concerned more for their convenience than for the approaching Nazi army, reeks of satire and only adds to the farcical absurdity of the complicated story. The plot thickens as the fugitive Auber becomes involved with an idealistic young physics student named Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) and her mentor (Jean-Marc Stehle), a Jewish professor whom she is helping to escape abroad before the Nazis can get their hands on his secret experiments. Auber soon finds himself torn between his devotion to the manipulative Viviane and his growing concern for Camille and her cause.
While all of the characters, including many supporting faces, are well portrayed, Rappeneau unfortunately leaves the majority of them just a little too undeveloped, choosing instead to focus on a plot driven a little too much by coincidence. One wishes to see more of sinister Peter Coyote as a journalist and German spy, or of Beaufort, a government official pushing his country towards a fatal armistice with the enemy; Rappeneau only barely touches on such pressing issues as collaboration or Nazi cruelty. Nevertheless, the film succeeds admirably in creating a wartime farce with believable and sympathetic characters and an unexpected humanity that resonates with the viewer. Perhaps a little escapism is just what we need after all.