Bon Voyage

It’s a thousand pities that a proud warrior nation like the French, the superpower of Europe for centuries, should have been reduced in American eyes to the “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys” who opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. More than any other nation, the French have taken an interest in military honor, and their great authors of the 19th century — Stendhal, Dumas pPre et fils, Balzac, Hugo — were virtually obsessed with questions of honor and chivalry. Of course we know where their current reputation comes from: the shameful events of 1940 when French forces collapsed before the Nazi onslaught in a matter of days. Henri-Philippe Petain, the hero made famous by beating back the Germans at Verdun in the First World War with the slogan ils ne passeront pas, or “They shall not pass,” became the president of a puppet French government at Vichy.

Although there have been a number of movies about life under the German occupation — most notably Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), and Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac (1997) — the cinema has mostly averted its eyes from May, 1940, itself. But now comes Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s splendid Bon Voyage which not only looks at the French defeat directly but does so from the point of view of chivalry!

The theme if not the subject matter should come as no surprise. Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) starring Gérard Depardieu was a thrillingly anachronistic version of Edmond Rostand’s hyper-romantic play of 1900 and was followed by The Horseman on the Roof (1995), which was an even more improbably romantic treatment of love and war during a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. Both movies are available on DVD and are well worth seeing. Bon Voyage has an immensely complicated but always grippingly well-told story that begins six months before the defeat. Frédéric Auger (Grégori DerangPre), a struggling young writer is hopelessly in love with Viviane Denvers (Isabelle Adjani), a movie star whom he has known since childhood but who has forgotten him since she became the toast of pre-war Paris. One night a man with whom Viviane has had some sort of shady dealings comes to her apartment and she kills him. Knowing of Frédéric’s devotion to her, she calls on him to get rid of the body.

Of course, chivalrous to a fault, he agrees. And of course he is caught — subsequently going to jail without making any attempt to incriminate Viviane. When the Germans invade, Frédéric takes advantage of the confusion as he and other prisoners are being transferred from Paris to a prison elsewhere to escape with the help of Raoul (Yvan Attal), another convict. The two men make their way to Bordeaux where, as it happens, the French government and much of the Parisian beau monde has also fled — Viviane, now the mistress of a cabinet minister (Mr Depardieu), along with them. Along the way, Frédéric and Raoul fall into the company of the elderly Jewish Professor Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehlé) and his beautiful young assistant, Camille (Virginie Ledoyen), who are attempting to transport in the back seat of their car the world’s entire supply of heavy water, used in nuclear bomb production, out of the country so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the Germans.

The convolutions of plot which follow in overcrowded, panic-stricken, intrigue-filled Bordeaux — where the dramatis personae also include a German spy (Peter Coyote) and the nephew (Nicolas Vaude) of Viviane’s victim who spots Frédéric and attempts to have him arrested for his uncle’s murder — are worthy of a French farce and often quite as funny. But there is also a serious purpose underlying all the trials of the young chevalier, Frédéric, which is an almost Balzacian concern with what it is to act nobly in these impossible circumstances — not only in war and defeat but also in love. When I spoke to M. Rappeneau he said that everybody involved with the film must have asked himself: “What would I have done?” Certainly he did. In fact he has probably been asking himself that question since he was a boy growing up under the occupation, the son of a winner of the legion d’honneur in the First World War who was taken prisoner in the Second.

He had spent the war reading Dumas and Balzac, he said, but claimed never to have given much thought to the idea of chivalry in his films. The way he prefers to put it, he has known from the beginning of his career that he would be no good at making movies about ordinary everyday life, where the characters sit in a Parisian café and have conversations. He often admires films like that, just as he admires the equally un-Rappeneauvian films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but for him filmmaking involves transporting his audience to another and more romantic world. Could it be only coincidental that Criterion Collection has just released a two-disc DVD version, made from a newly-discovered and superior print, of The Rules of the Game (1939), Jean Renoir’s scathing look at the pre-war French upper classes which is thought by many to be the greatest film of all time?

Rappeneau’s vision of corruption and decadence in the death throes of the Third Republic chimes well with Renoir’s, but the difference is that the former is able to find the possibility of honor even here and the latter is not. For Renoir, both in this film and in his other superlatively great one, La Grande Illusion (1937), the world of honor and chivalry is dead — a point of view which has, perhaps, been the more honored these last 60-odd years for making the French surrender in 1940 and all that has followed it comprehensible. But surely we may take it as a sign of hope, for France as well as ourselves, that in that other world to which Jean-Paul Rappeneau would transport us, honor lives on. Certainly such hope is welcome now that it is the Spanish who have apparently decided to seek a separate peace with terrorism.

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