A pleasingly strange comedy, writer-director Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Epoque takes a somewhat familiar high concept and applies it to the story of two men who are growing older, but not necessarily wiser when it comes to love.
Victor Drumond (Daniel Auteuil) used to be a successful graphic artist and writer, but now he’s a cranky, technophobic, flippant, and perpetually exhausted senior citizen. His long suffering wife, Marie (Fanny Ardant) – who has secretly been having an affair with Victor’s former boss – finally kicks him out of their home. With nowhere else to go, Victor reluctantly takes his television producer son up on a gift he initially didn’t want: a high priced “time travelling” experience where elaborate sets and a group of actors will recreate any moment in history the client wishes to live through. Instead of choosing a moment of historical importance, Victor asks to be transported back to May 16, 1974, the day he first met Marie in a cafe in Lyon. The immersive experience is the brainchild of Antoine (Guillaume Canet), who credits Victor for “saving his life” with a book when he was a teenager. Antoine is a tyrannical, detail oriented director willing to spare no expense for Victor, and whose volatile on-again-off-again relationship with one of his leading actresses (Doria Tillier) grows increasingly complicated when she steps into the role of young Marie in Victor’s “fantasy.”
La Belle Epoque plays like what would happen in the main character in The Truman Show knew everything was fake, and they could come and go as they please. Victor, a cynic by nature, can’t help but criticize all of the fine details in Antoine’s gorgeously constructed sets, props, and performances, but the old man goes along with the program because the nostalgia he feels takes away from the pain of his everyday life. Bedos artfully finds ways to make reality and fantasy intersect without ever devolving into the magical or maudlin. For a film where viewers might have a lot of questions as to how Antoine is able to pull all of this off and why Victor is able to occasionally suspend his disbelief, La Belle Epoque remains refreshingly believable.
The entire premise of La Belle Epoque is built around the gutsy decision to make both of its male leads wildly unsympathetic for large portions of the film. While there’s some humanity left in both Antoine and Victor, they have become monsters of their own creations, and the well crafted performances from all four leads illustrate their complicated relationships brilliantly. La Belle Epoque isn’t exclusively about the comforting escape of nostalgia, but rather about the need to grow and rise above the past. La Belle Epoque is a cleverly executed romantic comedy, and while it isn’t a gutbuster or tear jerker, Bedos’ work is charming and uniquely perceptive.
La Belle Epoque is available to screens online as part of the 2020 Cinefranco Film Festival from Saturday, November 21 to Saturday, November 28. All online Cinefranco screenings are geolocked to Canada.