Vernal confection: Voyage en douce
Le Voyage en douce
Directed by Michel Deville. Screenplay by Mr. Deville with the collaboration of Francois-Regis Bastide, Camille Bourniquel, Muriel Cerf, Jean Chalon, Pierrette Grainville, Yves Navarre, Jacques Perry, Maurice Pons, Beatrice Privat, Suzanne Prou, Frederic Rey, Dominique Rolin and Isaure de Saint-Pierre. Director of photography, Claude Lecomte. Edited by Raymonde Guyot. Music by Beethoven, Brahms and Quentin Damamme. With Dominique Sanda, Geraldine Chaplin, Jacques Zabor, Valerie Masterson, Christophe Malavoy. 95 minutes. France; originally released in 1981.
Deville wrote the screenplay with the help of more than a dozen collaborators, each lending sundry anecdotes to flesh out the itinerant Hélène (Sanda) and Lucie (Chaplin). They’re both married, Hélène with two young children and Lucie childless, living lives that fall short of their youthful expectations. Admissions and visualizations of disorder and frustration merge with fantasies and vague recollections, causing the lines separating fact from fiction to blur.
As he’d later do in La Lectrice (1988), Deville segues freely between the two, often accompanied by a narration which may or may not be riddled with fabrication. He subtly changes our perception of the narrative form, to a point where we’re no longer concerned about situations as much as we are about the personalities involved. Some of the significant issues which are raised — who’s that man sitting next to Hélène at the recital? why has Lucie’s husband removed all the doors inside their home? — go unanswered, enticing us to fill in the blanks, albeit with yet more questions. Is Hélène sleeping with Lucie’s husband? Is Lucie a suicide risk?
With serene passages from Beethoven’s bagatelles fluttering on its soundtrack, the attempt to explore the female psyche appears genuine (and Deville couldn’t have cast better players), but Le Voyage en douce clearly stems from a biased perspective. Male characters are distant, one-dimensional and generally lascivious, a convenient means for Deville to avoid scrutinizing his own sex, if not himself. And at their core, Hélène and Lucie are undermined by varying levels of confusion, that archaic but pervasive male interpretation of female weakness.
Taking a long weekend away from the controlling men in their lives, they’re hounded by reminders of actual and imagined shortcomings and disheartenment. Far less articulate or worldly than the characters in an Eric Rohmer film, Deville offers Hélène as an emblem of determination and sensuality, while Lucie carries the burden of excessive innocence and frailty. Unlike the similarly disparate (and desperate) pair in Thelma & Louise (1991), Hélène and Lucie never quite entwine as one — Hélène’s masculine side would never allow it and Lucie’s just too scared.
When the film was released in 1981, Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charles and Oona, granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill) was in the midst of an odd, burgeoning career, balancing big box office productions such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Hawaiians (1970), Z.P.G. (1970), and The Three Musketeers (1973), with Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), and A Wedding (1978), as well as the start of a long, fruitful relationship on and off camera with director Carlos Saura. Her excellent performance in Le Voyage en douce offers a bare vulnerability that nearly fills the void in Sanda’s Hélène.
Riding the crest of an auspicious decade that began with her debut in Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce (1969), Dominique Sanda attained international success in Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (1970) and 1900 (1976), and De Sica’s Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970). She made bids for mainstream stardom in Philippe Labor’s Sans mobile apparent (1971), John Huston’s The MacKintosh Man (1973), Jack Smight’s Damnation Alley (1977), and J. Lee Thompson’s Caboblanco (1980), but they failed to find an audience and Sanda soon retreated to smaller efforts and television work. When she made Le Voyage en douce, the actress had attained a state of physical perfection, her flawless, tan silky skin and hair gently softened by the sun. Sanda uses her appearance to flavor Hélène as someone not necessarily vain but aware of her beauty as both a blessing and a curse.
Their journey through the provincial villages, afternoons spent in outdoor cafes or lazing about in airy hotel rooms, pass by in a succession of warm, inviting earth tones captured by cinematographer Claude Lecomte. He began his long but largely forgotten career on Deville’s Une balle dans le canon (1958; co-directed by Charles Gérard), a partnership which continued into the 1980s: Ce soir ou jamais (1961), À cause, à cause d'une femme (1963), L’Ours et la poupée (1969), La Femme en bleu (1973), Le Dossier 51 (1978), and La Petite bande (1983), among others. Lecomte’s best work, however, was for Jean-Loup Hubert’s Le Grand chemin (1987), where he mined the rich hues of rural Brittany.
Despite its flaws, Le Voyage en douce is an engaging look at potential blithe spirits locked away in self-constructed prisons. It may appear to lack an intellectual edge, but Deville works prudently between the lines. And the countryside, Sanda and Chaplin are simply radiant.
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