As a glittering premiere-night crowd of Parisians guffaw at the film they're watching, one audience member looks queasy: the movie's star, Viviane Denvert (Isabelle Adjani). Her expression suggests she's the only one who thought she was delivering a serious performance.
This friction between comedy and drama gives “Bon Voyage” its delirious, unlikely spin. After all, the German occupation of France in World War II doesn't seem like a laugh-riot subject. Director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) never tries to make things “funny,” per se. But by shooting wartime chaos with the door-slamming rhythms of bedroom farce, he captures the time's topsy-turvy absurdity while also making cutting observations about class politics, bureaucratic idiocy and the me-first mind-set that turned many Parisians into German collaborators.
The film, which premieres in the Finger Lakes Sept. 12 at the Smith Opera House, blurs the line between comedy and epic drama so adroitly that the two styles fuse into something quite original: a lyrical farce that pays homage to its period in any number of ways. The film's proposal that chaos and farce may often be synonymous is its cleverest conceptual stroke. In its portrayal of mass confusion, in which people's best and worst instincts all flare up at once, farce and melodrama fuse into an exhilarating larger-than-life human comedy that in its zeal to entertain refrains from making heavy moral judgments.
After her film's premiere, Viviane sets the plot in motion by calling her old friend Frederic (Gregori Derangere) to her chic apartment. A struggling novelist with a lifelong crush on her, he hurries over, hoping his dreams are about to come true. Instead, he finds a businessman's corpse on her floor, and Viviane saying, “He slipped. . . .”
That doesn't explain the bullet in the body — which Frederic doesn't even know about until a slapstick accident lands him in jail, charged with murder.
Cut to a few months later: June 14, 1940. The German army arrives in Paris, and all of Paris flees south. That includes Frederic and a new, joined-at-the-wrist friend, Raoul (Yvan Attal), a fellow prisoner who gets them out of handcuffs and on the lam. En route, they meet college student Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) and Professor Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle), her mentor, who are trying to smuggle something very important to England.
In the tradition of farce, everyone winds up in Bordeaux, along with Viviane and her new paramour, the politician Beaufort (Gerard Depardieu). Add to the mix Winckler (Peter Coyote), a journalist, plus a couple of Nazi policemen and a double agent, and “Bon Voyage” turns into a roundelay of characters colliding with each other as they chase after their own needs.
Some of those needs are more vital than others. Raoul steals fine wines to sell on the black market, while Camille is trying to save both her country and the professor (he's Jewish). When Frederic isn't dodging police, he's busy wooing Viviane. Winckler decides he'd like Viviane for himself and stoops to blackmail to get her. The serious and the ridiculous are intertwined.
“Bon Voyage” manages its tricky balancing act remarkably well, showing equal affection for its young heroes and its lifelong slimeballs. Adjani gives a delicious, self-mocking portrait of movie star selfishness. The film's best joke is that she's as bad an actress in real life as onscreen, but men are too smitten to see through her.
The Smith screens “Bon Voyage” at 2 p.m. Sept. 12 and at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 and 14. The film has a running time of one hour, 54 minutes. In French with English subtitles, it is rated PG-13 for some violence. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Tuesday are $2. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.