Vichy-Era Melodrama Treats Occupation as Farce

Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage , from a screenplay by Mr. Rappeneau and Patrick Modiano, is reportedly inspired by the director’s childhood memories of World War II: the fall of France in 1940; his father’s imprisonment in a German prison camp; and his mother’s letters to her husband, describing young Jean-Paul’s silent protest by staying indoors as the neighborhood boys cheered the German soldiers marching into Auxerre.

Knowing these personal details, one would think that Mr. Rappeneau would seize this opportunity to denounce the French Vichy administration for its complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. But Bon Voyage turns out to be more of a comical romantic melodrama than a solemn political statement-another Casablanca (1942) rather than the far more somber Watch on the Rhine (1943).

Still, there’s no revisionism in Mr. Rappeneau’s treatment of wartime occupation. Instead, we get a brand of wry Gallic nuance personified by his leading characters: the self-absorbed movie star Viviane (Isabelle Adjani) and the self-serving cabinet minister Beaufort (Gérard Depardieu). Both characters are morally flawed though Viviane is less hateful due to her unfailing instinct for self-preservation, an instinct she places beyond any considerations of good and evil. Beaufort, on the other hand, unerringly chooses the wrong side while pretending to have an open mind.

Initially, the only discernible moral counterweight to Viviane and Beaufort is an unpublished novelist named Frédéric (Grégori Derangère), who’s had a lifelong crush on Viviane, well before her rise to stardom. Ignored by Viviane for years, the hapless hero is startled to receive a sobbing telephone call from the actress. She needs him to dispose of the body of a burdensome lover turned blackmailer who died, she says, from an accidental fall in her duplex apartment. And oh, the scandal if she were to call the police!

Unfortunately, Frédéric ends up getting caught by the police-with the dead body in his trunk. He gallantly declines to implicate Viviane in the “accident.” Only when his defense lawyer asks him where he’s hidden the gun does it dawn on him that Viviane shot the man and allowed him to take the fall.

While he’s left to languish in prison, World War II breaks out; Frédéric’s lawyer takes off to the front, and the prisoner spends his time working on his unfinished novel. Less than a year later, with the victorious German Army approaching Paris, the jails are emptied and Frédéric-with the help of a fellow convict, Raoul (Yvan Attal)-manages to escape from a truck carrying the convicts to another prison south of the city.

Most of the rest of the film is set in the suddenly congested port city of Bordeaux, where the French government and much of the Parisian haute monde had fled just before the occupation of Paris.

During this brief interval in history, conflicting conceptions of patriotism began to emerge. There were those who wanted to fight on with General Charles DeGaulle, even if this meant going to either England or the French colonies in Africa, and those who preferred to remain with Marshal Pétain in their homeland and start working to “purify” France.

The stage is set for any number of semi-farcical Feydeau-like collisions between the would-be Gaullists and Petainists-semi-farcical because the Gestapo has already infiltrated Bordeaux in the seemingly amiable person of Winckler (Peter Coyote), a German spy masquerading as a French journalist, who also offers to “help” Viviane, even though she’s chosen Beaufort as her live-in escort in Bordeaux.

For his part, Frédéric-once he discovers that Viviane has left Paris for Bordeaux-follows her in the forlorn and foredoomed hope that she’ll clear his name. Along the way on the crowded train, he encounters a comely young research assistant named Camille (Virginie Ledoyen), who’s on her way to meet her aged physics professor, Kopolski (Jean-Marc Stehle). Kopolski needs to escape to England to safeguard his apparatus for heavy water-a necessary ingredient for the atom bomb-and keep it out of the hands of the Germans. This truly is the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins.

Also on the train is Raoul, who’s taken an immediate interest in Camille. There’s no automatic romantic rivalry between Raoul and Frédéric, since Frédéric is still too infatuated with his idealized image of Viviane to notice that Camille is definitely attracted to him. The plot thickens when Frédéric catches up with Viviane in the company of Beaufort, who’s visibly suspicious of him as a possible rival. The panicky Viviane reassures Beaufort by only partly lying to him, saying that Frédéric was just the harmless boy next-door before she became a star.

Beaufort then invites Frédéric to dine with him at the government table. Viviane flees to the ladies’ room to gather her wits. Just then, Camille is persuaded by her professor to use her acquaintance with Frédéric as a lever to convince Beaufort to grant him a visa to England. But Frédéric is oblivious; he surrenders his chair to Camille so he can continue his pursuit of Viviane, only to be intercepted in the jammed dining room by the enraged son of Viviane’s murdered ex-lover; he, too, will later press his unwelcome attentions on Viviane.

The Herculean task of transporting the heavy water and the Jewish Professor to safe passage eventually turns into an extravagantly complex chess game of criss-crossing motivations. Except for Viviane’s pure and not entirely loathsome brand of opportunism, there are no moral shadings in the characters and no thrilling reversals of commitment, of the kind exemplified by the words of Captain Renault (Claude Rains) at the end of Casablanca : “Round up the usual suspects.”

Still, the generally light tone of Bon Voyage is the result of intense concentration on the part of Mr. Rappeneau and his collaborators. It would’ve been so easy for him to let an understandable bitterness creep into the proceedings. His forbearance is thus almost Lubitschean in his mercy for the most ignoble wretches in the story. It’s part of that same spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that impelled DeGaulle to pardon Pétain after he’d been sentenced to death by a postwar tribunal. There’s also forgiveness in Mr. Rappeneau’s heart for all the French performers who kept working in Paris during the German Occupation. That’s why Ms. Adjani, who plays an anti-heroine if ever there was one, gets top billing, and Mr. Depardieu as the infamous Beaufort is right below her. They both lend humanity to their undeniable villainies.

Oscar Watch

I’ve been watching Oscar telecasts religiously for more than half a century, and I must say this year’s spectacle was the funniest and least tedious in memory. And yet this Joe Roth–produced show has been reviled with some of the worst ennui-drenched notices in recent history. I wonder why. Maybe the gossip columnists couldn’t stand the lack of bad taste in display. Where were the pratfalls? Where were the bloated production numbers? Where, indeed?

“The times when I always wanted to get a sandwich was during the production numbers,” said first-time Oscar producer Mr. Roth to Caryn James in her perceptive preview of the ceremony in The New York Times on Feb. 29.

But Mr. Roth managed to hit pay dirt with the jazzy production number for the French animation nominee, The Triplets of Belleville . There was also considerable charm and panache in the tongue-and-cheek rendition of “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as Mitch and Mickey, from A Mighty Wind . When Mitch kisses Mickey for real (and then some) near the end of the song, never before in Oscar-night history has such naïve sweetness been rendered with such extraordinarily expert timing.

Mr. Roth also delivered by featuring more of Hollywood’s comic talent than has been the norm in Oscar nights past. Billy Crystal was in top form throughout the evening, especially in his opening medley of mock lyrics to familiar tunes, ending on an all-time high note with his rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” with new lyrics playing off Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Mystic River . The number ended with Mr. Crystal sitting on Mr. Eastwood’s lap in the audience.

Unfortunately, top-of-the-line funny men Robin Williams and Jim Carrey weren’t given enough time to do justice to their stints, but this bit of slack was taken up by the new Hollywood comedy duo of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, as they shamelessly promoted their new release, Starsky and Hutch . Also in good form were a pick-up comedy team, The School of Rock ‘s Jack Black and Will Ferrell from Elf , two unexpected box-office bonanzas.

Even a long overdue lifetime-achievement award for Blake Edwards was given a kinetic jolt as his motorized wheelchair whizzed across the stage and through a fake wall as presenter Jim Carrey’s jaw dropped in feigned horror. Mr. Edwards was graciously appreciative of all the “little people” in movies, and delivered a gallantly hard-boiled valentine to his wife in the audience, Julie Andrews.

Oh, all right, it was a little boring to watch rumpled, woolly Kiwis trot up to the stage 11 times to sweep all the awards for which Lord of the Rings was nominated. I was ruefully surprised that the producer of The Barbarian Invasions wouldn’t let its writer-director, Denys Arcand, get a word in edgewise, but I suppose it’s the auteurist in me that makes me even care. I was even more surprised, and pleasantly so, that The Barbarian Invasions won at all for Best Foreign Language Film, a category that’s tended to be mysteriously irrelevant.

All in all, the Oscar show deserved better notices than it got. As far as this old critic’s concerned, Mr. Roth, you did a fine job.

Vichy-Era Melodrama Treats Occupation as Farce