La Belle Epoque

LA BELLE EPOQUE. Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant,  Michael Cohen, and Denis Podalydes. Directed by Nicolas Bedos. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, sex, drug use, coarse language and brief nudity). 115 min.

The title of this sub-titled French film is French for “Beautiful Epoch”. It tells the story of a man,  who is ordered to leave his family, and whose past life is re-enacted historically in fantasy. It was nominated for multiple awards at the 2020 Cesar awards, where the film won Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (for Fanny Ardant), and Best Production Design.

Victor Drummond (Daniel Auteuil) is grumpily disaffected with life as a failed newspaper cartoonist. He is especially despondent about modern internet technology, which he doesn't really understand, and he is deeply depressed. Now facing his 70s, he feels his life is “totally empty”, and his long-time marriage to psychotherapist, Marianne (Fanny Ardant) is in obvious trouble. He knows she is having an affair with the man (Denis Podalydes), who has fired him from his job. Marianne tells him he has to leave, she orders him out, and he goes.

Victor’s son, Maxime (Michael Cohen), arranges for his father to talk to a company, called “Time Travellers”, which professionally stages re-enactments of the past for its customers so they can experience a previous time of their own choosing. Some clients focus on historical persons, such as Adolf Hitler, and Marie Antoinette. Victor, however, chooses to experience one week in his past life, 40 years earlier, when he first met Marianne, the woman he married, in a crowded “La Belle Époque” cafe in the city of Lyon. The independence she showed then, and which attracted him, has turned over time into verbal exchanges that demonstrate little affection. Now, Victor and Marianne mutually demean each other. Cleverly, the woman who plays Marianne with the “Time Travellers” company, shows the same traits that Marianne demonstrates in real life.

In the staged performance of Victor’s past, the role of Marianne is taken by Margot (Doria Tillier), who has a complicated and volatile sexual relationship with Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a neurotic screen-writer, who is himself estranged from his own wife, and who directs Victor’s staged life. In this film, the complexity of the narrative scenarios that typically accompany French farce is alive and well, and liberally expressed desires and sentiments abound.

The staged re-enactment captures Victor emotionally and engages him obsessively in Antoine’s restaging, where Victor loses himself in the company’s re-construction of his memories. In the world of fantasy, Victor falls in love with Margot, but back in reality he starts to reassess his relationship with the real-life Marianne. The chief message of the film is that true love is something that should not be allowed to wither and die, and needs attention to keep it vibrantly alive. The last half hour of the film becomes moving drama as fantasy and reality fuse interestingly together.

The film takes a familiar notion - how one feels, when first falling in love - and embellishes it with sharp scripting, good direction, and impressive acting. The film creatively develops the theme that memories of the past can be re-experienced to help solve difficulties of the present. This strongly nostalgic theme resurrects the lure of the past by appealing to memories that are easily forgotten. The script is loaded with one-liners; Daniel Auteuil is charismatic; Nicholas Bedos, as Director, deftly controls the mix of fantasy and reality; and Fanny Ardant’s exchanges with Guillaume Canet, as Victor, are impressively acerbic.

This is a film that cleverly expands its basic conceit. Its major theme is the significance of nostalgia for enlivening human relationships. As a French farce, the film characteristically plays fast and loose with morality in complex couplings, but there are substantial themes lying behind its facade that invite deeper scrutiny, such as the therapeutic value of nostalgia that leads people, who engage in it, to better appreciate the present. This is a film that explores human relationships by manipulating its audience in a very original way.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Rialto Distribution

Released August 13, 2020

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