La Belle Époque (2019)

La Belle Époque by Nicolas Bedos has sublime performances from its central characters that combine with a clever, witty, seamless screenplay to create an unashamedly super-enjoyable film.

Having the Time of Your Life

by Alexa Dalby

La Belle Époque

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

La Belle Époque starts as it means to go on by confusing us in its opening scene as to whether what we see on screen is the film itself or a false start of a film within a film. It constantly surprises by pulling the rug away from under our feet – and also the feet of its central character Victor, a sixty-something formerly successful cartoonist.

Drolly humorous Victor (wonderful Daniel Auteuil) has become irritating to his ever-youthful psychotherapist wife Marianne (equally wonderful Fanny Ardant) and their marriage is becalmed in boredom – as far as she is concerned. When she throws him out in frustration, he takes up an offer from his publisher son (Michaël Cohen) to experience the adventure offered by his friend Antoine’s (Guillaume Canet) company, Time Travel. This company painstakingly recreates for its clients the time period of their choice, so that they can step back into the world of their fantasy and play a central part in, be it, for example, the court of Louis XIV or Hitler’s bunker in World War II.

Victor plaintively chooses to go back to the café in Lyon in 1974 to the moment where he first met and fell in love with Marianne when he was 25. Antoine creates the setting for him, perfect in every detail, based on Victor’s sketches at that time. To complete the picture, Victor is kitted out in the 1970s fashions – the flares and the open-collared shirt – he wore as a young man. Actors play the roles of the people in the cafe – the waiters and the other customers – he interacted with then. And Margot (Doria Tillier, Nicolas Bedos’ muse), an actress who is in a turbulent on-off relationship with director Antoine, plays the role of Marianne, as she was in 1974 as a young woman, primed with background information to convincingly recreate the moment that Marianne and Victor first met in the café.

The chemistry works only too well. Victor starts to fall in love with Margot, prompting her to break out of character, and he becomes reluctant to return to the real world outside the set. But nothing and no one in this fantasy world is as they seem: even going behind the scenes of that world reveals not reality but yet another stage set, opening up like Chinese boxes. The complex intersections of the various plots involving Victor, Marianne, Antoine and Margot in different realities fit together seamlessly, like a kind of filmic Noises Off. Meanwhile, as in Big Brother, Antoine and his technical crew sit unseen in the control room manipulating the actors through their earpieces.

La Belle Époque is charming, touching, serious and funny. It’s about the passing of time, coming to terms with ageing, the durability of love and also about cinema itself and its ability to create and confuse multiple layers of reality and unreality. The two veteran actors Auteil and Ardant are a joy to watch together. It couldn’t be better.

La Belle Époque premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 22 November 2019 in the UK.

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