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Forest and Trees


Often when someone asks me to recommend a current film, I will name a foreign title. And people routinely tell me that they just can't stand reading subtitles. I don't understand this. Having seen perhaps a thousand subtitled films in my life, I can attest that reading the dialogue becomes almost subliminal. When I remember a foreign film, I don't remember the subtitles. Still, countless filmgoers resist foreign movies because they are annoyed by subtitles. And that's too bad. If that prejudice didn't exist, for instance, Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Bon Voyage would likely become one of the biggest commercial hits of the year. It may be subtitled, but it is also clever, funny, suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining in just the way American movie fans like.

Set on the eve and in the first months of World War II, Bon Voyage is an old-fashioned romantic comedy in the very best sense of the term "old-fashioned." It is sophisticated, fast-paced and artfully complicated. The film opens and closes in a movie theater, reminding us of the sanctuary we take from real life when we surrender our time to the watching of a film. The star of the movie within the movie is Viviane Denvers (Isabelle Adjani, gorgeous and astonishingly youthful at age 48). On her way home from a premiere, Viviane is accosted by an old lover who forces his way into her apartment where she shoots him in self-defense. Terrified of negative publicity, she elicits the assistance of another former lover, Frederic Auger (Gregori Derangere) to help dispose of the body. Unfortunately, it is raining and a balky windshield wiper leads to an auto accident, and pretty soon Frederic is in jail for murder. Ever loyal to Viviane, for whom he still carries a torch the size of that held by the Statue of Liberty, Frederic does the time without having done the crime.

Meanwhile, the Nazis are rolling through Belgium. And Viviane, who thinks with great clarity about what's in her own best interests, decides that her best move of the moment is to take up with Jean-Etienne Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu, slimmed down and fitter than I've seen him in years), France's Minister of the Interior, and one of the country's most influential politicians. Though the Germans haven't reached Paris yet, Beaufort is already calculating how to form a new government for the purpose of surrendering as soon as possible. Survival ranks as his highest priority, and since prosperous survival is Viviane's only priority, that makes him the most attractive man she knows. Everybody heads to Bordeaux to buy time. And that includes Frederic and his cellmate Raoul (Yvan Attal) when the French empty their prisons in the face of the German advance.

Meanwhile, renowned nuclear physicist Professor Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle) is headed to Bordeaux with a station wagon full of heavy water, one of the ingredients needed to make an atomic bomb. Kopolski and his beautiful young assistant Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) are hoping to get the heavy water to England before it falls in the hands of the Nazis with disastrous consequences. Frederic and Raoul meet Camille on a crowded train ride south and begin a relationship with her that will persist for the rest of the movie. The plot questions are: 1) Will Viviane ever stop being a selfish bitch? 2) Will she end up with Jean-Etienne, Frederic or that sinister journalist Alex Winckler (American Peter Coyote, playing a Frenchman)? 3) Who will end up with Camille? And 4) Will Kopolski succeed in getting his heavy water to England and if so, how?

The central conceit to Bon Voyage is that human beings are so wrapped up in their own private concerns that very few of them see what is really important. Most people can't see the forest for the trees. Viviane is so vain that she wheedles a compliment about a movie performance while she and Frederic are skulking into the night carrying a corpse. Later, she thinks nothing of interrupting a national cabinet meeting so that she can discuss a private matter with Jean-Etienne. Since the topic being debated by the cabinet is whether to fight, surrender or evacuate the French government to Algeria, Viviane's obliviousness is all the more outrageous.

The other characters suffer from a similar narcissistic myopia. Jean-Etienne fails even to contemplate that allowing the Germans to acquire the heavy water might be considered a capital offense, but waxes indignant that Viviane has associated him with a murder case. Frederic is so moonstruck by Viviane that he's like Charlie Brown, gullibly agreeing to kick that football one more time. Viviane never does anything but take advantage of him. But even with the fate of the world in the balance, he stands ready to abandon duty to serve as her errand boy.

In sum, Bon Voyage is a delight. It's wise about the foibles of human nature, and smart enough to use comedy and adventure to make its more serious points.

Viviane (Isabelle Adjani, right) tries to survive World War - II with the help of Jean-Etienne (Gerard Depardieu) in - Bon Voyage.
  • Viviane (Isabelle Adjani, right) tries to survive World War II with the help of Jean-Etienne (Gerard Depardieu) in Bon Voyage.

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