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LIFF 2019: La Belle epoque

Still from ‘La Belle Epoque’

If you could explore any period of the past which one would you choose? Some people would want to have a drink with Ernest Hemingway, others to live like Marie Antoinette… but in this film, 60-year-old Victor chooses to relive a week in the 1970s when he first met the love of his life.  With La Belle Epoque, director Nicolas Bedos reflects on the passage of time with creativity, emotion and a dose of irony.

La Belle Epoque follows Victor as he rediscovers his youth after getting a free ticket for a new kind of attraction. Through constructed sets and live theatre, the entrepreneur Antoine offers his clients the opportunity to go to any period of their choice.

This is a beautiful, imaginative film. It is an ode to cinema, playing with the possibilities the genre offers. The mix of reality and and virtuality offers a reflection on time, some very well-written character development and many funny and/or imaginative moments. The rules of the world created in the film are very clever, enabling the director to use many clichés. Nicolas Bedos was criticised for overusing clichés in his first film Monsieur et Madame Adelman. In the context of La Belle Epoque his idealised vision of love makes complete sense because it is a product made to give clients the best experience possible. And because we, the viewers, know that all the petals, romantic dialogue and beautiful settings are fake, we allow ourselves to enjoy it. 

This world might be virtual but it reveals emotions and problems that are very real for the characters and that is what makes this story so interesting and entertaining. The characters are undeniably the strength of this film. All of them are complex, funny and flawed and played perfectly by the cast, and it is impossible not to get involved in their story. 

Victor (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) are not only interesting characters with great chemistry, their contrasts also break the frequent clichés about older people. She celebrates new technologies and her son’s video game company, while he wonders what has happened to the French language and real conversations. Both characters will end up trapped because of their personalities and visions of life, and that is why they are perfect for each other. 

Then there is Antoine (Guillaume Canet) and his favourite actress Margot (Doria Tillet) who both offer interesting portrayals of characters that are often simplified on film. He is a rich entrepreneur, who can be incredibly kind at times but also very dark at others. Margot is an apparently stereotypical pretty lead actress, but she is unafraid to stand up for herself. Their relationship did leave me feeling quite uncomfortable though: it is presented as a passionate love story, but to me it looked more like a woman having to handle an immature, violent man who is forgiven for everything because of what he has created. This reflects a common pattern in France where controversial directors are often accepted and admired for their work, regardless of their personal scandals. In fact this is a topic of current debate across the channel due to Polanski, known for his controversial life, releasing his new film J’accuse. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the romanticised version of the creator?

La Belle Epoque has a beautiful, creative, original story with well-written characters, and encourages us to reflect on the passing of time and appreciate what we have. Nostalgia makes everything in the past look better, but as Victor’s wife says when she finds out that her husband decided to go back to the 1970s: “Really? The 70s? We could get raped anytime we went out in the streets and everyone smoked indoors so that we could barely breathe”. Maybe the present isn’t so bad after all.