Bon Voyage (2003)

Movies like this one rarely get the attention they deserve. It’s not just the “European” stigma and low budget. It’s not the “tough to read” subtitles. I think it’s mainly because the movie is unusual, and therefore, difficult to sell, and even more difficult to digest. Not to say it’s a heavy movie. Not at all. It’s just an atypical experience.

I saw this movie about 7 months ago, at the Toronto Film Festival (love the city, love the festival, wish more people came here and discovered it for themselves). Sorry ‘about the plug – the film fest is an annual tradition for me, and seeing any of these movies picked up for major distribution is always a pleasure. Especially if a movie is not a “sure bet”, and not a crowdpleaser.
Warning to all – this might get artsy, and yes, the movie does feature Gerard Depardieu. However, if you just give it some time, and accept the jolly tone (despite the German occupation of France background), it might grow on you. I liked it exactly for that – put aside the characters, the direction and morals for a minute, and just consider this – it’s a farce set in an occupied country that has its own problems… Sounds familiar?

Before any of you say “Life is Beautiful”, let me step back and say that the emotional impact of “Bon Voyage” is nowhere near that. It does get weepy at times, and brings forth strong, albeit universal messages, but nothing of Benini’s magnitude. “Bon Voyage” is in a way a road movie, covering the political and social landscape, making some observations, and joking along, whether it’s appropriate or not. That makes it very open and at the same time, irreverent. You can’t help but sympathize with these people, and laugh at their little joys. The farce works, which for me was the selling point. Many others left the theater saying “that wasn’t funny”. I guess you either get it or you don’t.

The plot could have been taken out of a million soap episodes, and contains many coincidences, and caricatures, but it moves along because it’s not the core of the movie. Something about a vain movie star (Isabelle Adjani), a poor writer (there’s always a poor writer when you need a farce, isn’t it), a corrupt politician (Depardieu), and a scientist with a major discovery. All are on the run from the Nazis, for different reasons, and with different destinations. The movie star, for example, spends a considerable amount of time following the Germans in search of stability, money, power. Oh, the vanity.

Many of these characters at first show up as flat, two-dimensional caricatures, and yet there are many scenes where they come out of the bland writing, and develop depth, guilt, emotion. It’s a very interesting way to present characters, as if the writers tried to keep them simple and flat, but the events of the movie made them “real”, 3-D. I had the same experience watching “Moulin Rouge” a few years back – I knew the movie was a vaudeville, and an exaggeration, but couldn’t help believing and sympathizing with the characters when they experienced emotion.

The direction and cinematography are superb in “Bon Voyage”, as they should be. The decline of a great country, and constrasting it, the innocent vistas of countryside. The identical, muddy uniforms, mixed with bright, open clothes of the 30s-40s elite and politicians. Even the obligatory car chase scenes worked because they weren’t done over the top, did not employ special effects, and did not feature typical, familiar landmarks of Paris, France. It’s as if the movie was put together with the tools that were around in the 40s. Not everything happens in the same neighborhood we keep seeing in “french” films.

But going back to the light, confident tone of the movie – it is difficult to follow that. We’ve been trained to see war movies and expect tragedy, blood, hopelessness. In this one, the tragedy is replaced with melodrama, the blood is absent (there is one victim of shooting, but you can see it a mile away, and it is a result of contrived circumstance, rather than a normal flow of events. And as for hopelessness – there are so many moments when a light shines on all the “heroes”, and some plot device once again saves the day, you walk out of the theater uplifted knowing that nothing wrong can happen to these people. Their charm, good luck, and sense of humour are going to protect them for ages. And that’s a good feeling to have on the way out of a theater.

Find this movie in your local multiplex, or wait until it comes out. If nothing else, it will make you laugh at the silly Nazis.

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