Dir: Jean-Paul Rappeneau. 2003. France. 114mins.

Thirteen years after he adapted Jean Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac and seven years after his swashbuckling take on Jean Giono's The Horseman On The Roof, Jean-Paul Rappeneau throws off the cultural shackles of the heritage feature and returns to his first love: the romantic adventure comedy. Bon Voyage, his seventh film in 37 years, is a blithely ironic, picaresque tale set against an historical backdrop French cinema has always shied away from: the June 1940 fall of France. Released on 600 prints in France on April 16, this flamboyant, handsomely mounted $25.1m (Euros 23m) production delivers the goods with style. Overseas prospects are also likely to be strong, despite anti-Gallic sentiment in some quarters in the current political climate. Remember Cyrano De Bergerac, which also starred Depardieu, took $5.8m at the US box office in 1990 as well as a clutch of foreign accolades, including five Oscar nominations.

At 71, Rappeneau remains a mainstream director with elegance, wit and taste who demands long incubation periods to prepare his films. Demonstrating his additional talents as screenwriter and master of story construction and rhythm, Bon Voyage (once known as The Road To Bordeaux), marks his first original script in two decades. Writing in particular with Patrick Mondiano (co-scripter of Louis Malle's now classic Lacombe, Lucien), he has fashioned a complex story which adroitly drops half-a-dozen main characters into an historical vortex of flight, deceit, compromise and courage.

Set mostly in Bordeaux, where the French government fled with the cream of Parisian society to escape the invading German army, the plot centres on the adventures of a self-absorbed movie queen (Adjani, stepping in after Sophie Marceau became pregnant) and old flame and now struggling young novelist (Derangere).

In a Parisian prologue set on the eve of war in 1939, Adjani is followed home from the premiere of her latest movie by an insistent suitor and, in an ensuing struggle, shoots him dead. Called to help dispose of the body, the hapless Derangere takes the rap instead. With Derangere in prison, Adjani is sheltered by an opportunistic government minister (Depardieu) when the political establishment heads for Bordeaux. Derangere and a sympathetic young hood (Attal) escape during the confusion surrounding the Germans' arrival in Paris and head for Bordeaux, where they meet a young student (Ledoyen) trying to help her, a distinguished Jewish physicist (Stehle), smuggle a precious cargo of heavy water out of the country.

With the coveted shipment serving as the story's MacGuffin and with romance blooming in comically obtrusive ways (Attal is keen on Ledoyen who is taken with Derangere who is set on Adjani who, in addition to Depardieu, is being pursued a love-struck German spy posing as an American journalist), Rappeneau spins his multi-levelled plot with ironic grace, interweaving the main characters with the refugee chaos of life in Bordeaux. Drawing on personal memories of the Occupation, Rappeneau backgrounds the story with quickly etched contrasts of hope and despair, destitution and privilege that mark the end of the Third Republic. But these details never swamp the pure movieland artifice it serves as a setting.

The cast is pitch perfect and it is especially pleasant to see Adjani lightening up after her recent sombre comeback efforts, while Depardieu reminds audiences how good he can be when he sets his mind to it. Attal and Ledoyen are fresh and appealing. But special kudos must go to Derangere, a relative newcomer who has been in films since 1996. As the confused hero, he has quicksilver comic instincts and a dramatic finesse that are likely to carry him to meatier roles.

Technical credits, led by Thierry Arbogast's lush cinematography, Jacques Rouxel's vivid art direction and Catherine Leterrier's costumes, are fantastic. Credit must also go to enterprising husband-and-wife production-distribution team Laurent Petin and Michele Halberstadt who financed the film to completion when Hachette Premiere, Rappeneau's usual producer, was compromised by the aborted production of Terry Gilliam's film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Prod cos: ARP, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema
Fr dist: ARP
Int'l sales: EuropaCorp
Prods: Michele Halberstadt, Laurent Petin
Scr: Rappeneau, Patrick Modiano, Gilles Marchand, Julien Rappeneau, Jerome Tonnerre
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Prod des: Jacques Rouxel
Costumes: Catherine Leterrier
Ed: Maryline Monthieux
Music: Gabriel Yared
Main cast: Isabelle Adjani, Gerard Depardieu, Gregory Derangere, Virginie Ledoyen, Yvan Attal, Peter Coyote, Jean-Marc Stehle