Review: La Belle Epoque
In his third film, Nicholas Bedous takes us back to the past to revisit a pivotal moment in the life of a 60-year-old Frenchman.
If you could travel back to any location, to any time, where would you go? This is the question posed to sexagenarian Victor (Daniel Auteuil), a man disillusioned by a frustrated wife and a world that just feels like it wasn’t made for him anymore. La Belle Epoque literally translated to “The Good Times” in English, is the third feature film from French director Nicolas Bedous. The film has been critically lauded in its home country, nominated for several César awards and winning three, including an award for best writing.
Described as a romantic comedy, although a little light on the jokes, La Belle Epoque immediately sucks you in with an extremely interesting premise and quick, witty dialogue. Antoine (Guillaume Canet), an entrepreneur and childhood friend of Victor’s son, has become extremely rich and successful from his company Time Travellers, an endeavour that uses movie sets and actors to construct elaborate historical fiction for a litany of rich clients. As a gift from his son, Victor uses his Time Travellers experience to go back to the 16th of May, 1974, to a small cafe in Lyon, to recreate the first time he met his wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant).
La Belle Epoque doesn’t spend any time trying to refute Victor’s idealised version of the past. More so it seems to lean into it, indulging in his whims with a series of montages, complete with stunning visuals and crisp warm lighting. Once Victor has completed his Time Travellers experience, he immediately borrows money from his son to continue his meet-cute, while in the present, Marianne grows to regret her decision to end their relationship, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her affair partner and therapy client Francois (Denis Podalydès) and her “boring” group of friends. La Belle Epoque often indulges in psychology, much to its detriment. Victor remarks of “Oedipus” like relationship between his wife and son at the beginning of the film. It’s an uncomfortable dialogue and doesn’t really mesh well with the audience’s desire for him and Marianne to reconcile. In a film described as a romantic comedy, this should be quite paramount.
Aside from an awkward third act, in which the Time Traveller’s theatrical prowess is unnecessarily used, the film is paced well, and its two-hour runtime goes by quickly. For all its self-awareness, however, La Belle Epoque never really seems to acknowledge the irony of Victor finding comfort in his nostalgic recreations of memory that could only have been achieved by the same technological advances he so openly abhors. In a film centered around the understanding of filmmaking, occasionally even breaking the fourth wall, it feels lazy not to acknowledge the inherent bias of its protagonist.
The real highlight of La Belle Epoque is the acting. The film has an extremely well-rounded cast, with the outstanding performance going to Doria Tiller as Margot, the actress playing an actress, who fills the role of young Marianne, Victor’s now estranged wife. Margot can play the part with ease, and Victor is immediately enraptured by this young, beautiful version of the woman, not yet old or dissatisfied with their marriage. Behind the scenes, however, Margot struggles to maintain professional boundaries with Antoine, with whom she has a romantic relationship, acting as both his muse and romantic partner.
The lines blur and there is a clever scene in which she has to simultaneously communicate with Antoine, who oversees Victor’s time travelers experience while continuing to play the part of Marianne. Tiller treads the line brilliantly, not allowing the character to fall into the manic pixie dream girl trope she could so easily become. Auteuil is also brilliant as Victor, imbuing him with a sense of weariness and nostalgia that immediately dissipates into childlike glee once he embarks on his time travelers experience. If there’s any weakness in the film’s characters it would be Antoine, a character that is difficult to view as any potential romantic interest for Margot, as he repeatedly berates her and the rest of his employees in fits of rage. This isn’t in any part due to actor Guillaume Canet’s performance; the insufferable genius is a tired trope that feels out of place in a troupe of characters that aren’t confined to familiar stereotypes.
The film’s visuals are truly wonderful. The faultless recreation of 1970’s Lyon, complete with age-appropriate fashion and music, is really a visual splendour. Margot gets the most of the gorgeous 70’s style, showing off printed headscarves, knitted vests, and crocheted mini dresses. As she dances lithely on top of a table, beer bottle in hand, to the sound of Baccara’s disco tune “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”, the production team pours rose petals from above. It’s a lovely moment that really succeeds in making you feel the way the protagonist does, pining for a time long past, even if you as the audience, never got to experience it.
What: La Belle Epoque theatrical release
Where: In Cinemas across Australia
When: From August 13th
Who: Pathé Distribution