Bon Voyage brings spectacle to the screen for moviegoers who aren't so much into gladiators and CGI and the like, and does it with old-fashioned panache. It posits the eve of World War II as a giddy, exciting time to be alive in France, as the leaders of Paris convene in Bordeaux to decide whether to fight or capitulate to the advancing German army. But that is merely the backdrop for a web of farcical intrigues involving escaped prisoners, a movie star, and a key ingredient to the atom bomb.
The movie leans on the farce element right out of the gate, and a little before it has earned it. Isabelle Adjani's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the movie star at first feels like another strained attempt at fun by the French along the lines of François Ozon's 8 Women, but comes to fit in nicely among a great ensemble effort.
Virginie Ledoyen threatens to upset the balance by being even more captivating than usual as the sole character who seems to realize how disappointing and grave the situation is --- everyone else is otherwise occupied. In fact, characters are always rudely dashing away from conversations to something suddenly more pressing.
When this delirious pace is maintained, Bon Voyage is truly great, and it makes the slower patches more of a letdown than they should be. But it's never less than sumptuous to look at, with rich hues, splendid photography, and an original balance between current means and the artificial effects employed by the old movies Bon Voyage emulates. (This is definitely a crack at "movies like they used to make 'em.") There are some grand shots of Paris in tumult which, in keeping with the film's spirit, are somehow momentous and yet merely a canvas for the characters' adventures.
This look at those consumed less with the political than the personal recalls Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, at least when it nicks an entire scene from its bettor. But Bon Voyage is so full of good spirits that one can't help but be as forgiving toward it as it is toward its characters.
Neil Young escaped with his Super-8 camera to a small town and shot a jittery, grainy companion piece to his latest album, which also tells the story of Greendale. A cast of characters mouths the dialogue as Young sings it (usually leading to awkward waits for that next line), and otherwise mime out whatever he is describing. Greendale seems to miss the point of cinema, adding nothing but a painful literalism to every piece of lyric, which only diminishes the tapestry of images and people evoked when you close your eyes.
The music is the highlight of the film, but the lyrics are often best shrugged off. They cover a grab bag of evils to get worked up about, from the current (government and corporations), to the tired (media insensitivity), to the ludicrous (an FBI agent shoots a character's cat because it scratched him).
And yet --- it's Neil Young. He's also easy to forgive, and the movie feels as harmless (if pointless) as any of his other strange experiments. It can even be charming. I realized partway through what was so familiar about the intentional low-budget hokeyness of it --- it's exactly like the karaoke videos that tell a little story in a cheesy '80s-video way. Same goofy mugging, same use of people and props like chess pieces for the lyrics. Greendale transcends this once, with a poignant scene that trumps what Paul Thomas Anderson attempted and whiffed out on in a similar scene in Magnolia. But then, disappointingly, Greendale returns to the confines of its structure and stays there.
Greendale screens at the Dryden Theatre, in the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, on Saturday, May 15, at 6 and 8 p.m.