The original Belle Époque, which ran from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the start of World War I in 1914, was a time of optimism, economic prosperity and cultural innovation. The French movie, LA BELLE ÉPOQUE, has little to do with that. Rather, it’s the name of a charming little bistro in Lyon that is recreated in painstaking detail for Victor Drumond (Daniel Auteuil, JEAN DE FLORETTE; MANON DES SOURCES), the story’s protagonist. Victor, who is in his late 60s, lives in Paris and is a cartoonist whose career has been sidelined by the demise of print journalism. His long-time marriage to psychotherapist Marianne (Fanny Ardant, LA FEMME D’À CÔTÉ) has also been sidelined. Fed up with Victor getting old before his time, she is having an affair with François (Denis Podalydès, M & MME ADELMAN; soon to be seen in Roman Polanski’s new film J’ACCUSE), his former newspaper editor, though even that doesn’t give her a tremendous amount of pleasure as she straps on a VR headset whenever they have sex. Through their son, Victor meets Antoine (Guillaume Canet, SINK OR SWIM; THE PROGRAM), who owns a company that stages historical re-enactments for well-heeled clients who want to go back in time. Think mini-Westworlds but with real actors doing all the parts instead of androids. Given the all-expenses paid opportunity to choose a time period to go to for one evening, Victor decides to return to 1970s Lyon when he met Marianne for the first time. Antoine builds an elaborate production based on Victor’s memories and he casts his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Margot (Doria Tillier, M & MME ADELMAN), to play the young Marianne. Though Victor knows it’s only a play with him as the star, he still gets caught up in the moment, leading to a few complications for everyone involved.
When you’re dealing with a high concept like this, the audience needs to be prepared to suspend some of its disbelief for the film to succeed. Fortunately, French writer-director Nicolas Bedos is able to pull it off thanks to the wonderful performances he gets from his cast, many of whom he worked with on his first feature film, M & MME ADELMAN. Auteuil and Ardent are fabulous both together and apart as they breathe life and passion into their characters. I’m not quite as old as they are but I can certainly understand both Victor and Marianne. For him, it’s his sense of identity that was taken away from him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. That’s why turning the clock back 45 years is so appealing to Victor. He not only wants to find that woman he fell in love with, he also wants to find that version of himself that was once so powerful and self-assured. For her, she’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet but neither is she about to sit around and wait for him to get his act together. Both of them turn to manufactured realities but neither reality is able to offer them long-term satisfaction.
Interestingly, Bedos doesn’t make this story all about Victor and Marianne. There’s also the tempestuous relationship between Antoine and Margot that is strained by her new relationship with Victor — one that is being manufactured by Antoine, no less. There is also a delightful subplot involving another of Antoine’s customers, Pierre (Pierre Arditi, M & MME ADELMAN), who is living and reliving a conversation he had wished he had with his father. Arditi is one of those actors — like Ardant — who just oozes charisma on screen. Bedos adeptly weaves all three plots together into one highly entertaining package.
Though it’s not in the same league as Charlie Kaufman’s high concept work (ANOMALISA; ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND; BEING JOHN MALCOVICH), LA BELLE ÉPOQUE is still very enjoyable. Now that Hollywood has finally discovered that good movies can be made in languages other than English, hopefully mainstream audiences will start to embrace films from countries other than the US too. If you haven’t done so yet, this is a good place to start.
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