Review: La Belle Époque
by Bénédicte Prot
- CANNES 2019: Out of competition, Nicolas Bedos presents a second feature as delicious as it is ingenious, a change of scenery (and set) and a reflection on our times
It is best to go blind into Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Époque [+see also:
interview: Nicolas Bedos
film profile], screened out of competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival; to let yourself be taken by surprise and carried away from the very first scene, which is in fact made of several interlocking scenes. In this structure — the film’s great asset, its beginning and its end — one can already feel the glee, the vertigo, and the elation of the film’s mise en scene. This idea of being transported (not “where”, but “when”) is at the heart of the project created by Antoine (Guillaume Canet) who, with the great help of impressive sets and costumes, offers trips back in time. You can ask for anything: a dinner at the King’s court at the time of the monarchy, a drunken evening with Hemingway…
But make no mistake: Bedos’ film is more than a play with the banal idea of the “mise en abyme” or film-within-a-film, which many will no doubt complacently linger on when discussing La Belle Époque. Written by Bedos, the intelligent and tight screenplay is cloaked with levity to conceal an amalgam of powerful, universal themes (love, the passage of time, the gulf between generations, what comes through nevertheless, and what remains across different eras...). The film also touches on ideas more specifically relevant to our confusing times, where everything seems to become dematerialised and omnipresent machines are doing everything for us…
This disorientation before technological “progress” is embodied here by Victor (Daniel Auteuil, more moving than ever), a satirical cartoonist left behind by the digitisation of the press. Despite his Victor-ious name, he seems at first to be the biggest loser in a world fully embraced by his wife Marianne (the vivacious and sublime Fanny Ardant), to the point where she is even willing to do without her husband after forty years spent together. Aimless and abandoned, Victor decides to take advantage of the “voucher for one free travel through time” that his son has offered him: he returns to 1974, the time when he first met Marianne. In her young version, as reconstituted by Antoine, Marianne is played by Doria Tillier — an actress who will have many names throughout the film, depending on the people she’s impersonating.
No more shall be said about the story (it would be a shame to whisper it all in the viewer’s ear…), except to stress that part of the joy in following it is due to the beautiful revenge that the bygone era when we would talk to each other without looking at our phones takes upon our present time — where everything is so “on demand” that we almost forget to live our own lives ourselves, to the point where we risk living phony ones. This candid revenge is that of Victor, the only one of Antoine’s “clients” who does not choose to relive someone else’s life but rather his own (it is no surprise that Antoine, a self-made man slightly intoxicated with his own power, sees him as a bit of a father figure). But Victor does not lose sight of the fact that life can not be lived again identically, and that the beauty of that copy will largely come from its imperfections. Indeed, Marianne’s delight in using modern gadgets cannot compare with the exquisite suffering of reality’s bite. As Marianne says, in a sigh like only Fanny Ardant can make them, “It feels terrible! It feels good!”
La Belle Époque, irresistible for all of those reasons and because the beautiful band of actors gathered here (which also includes Pierre Arditi and Denis Podalydès) seems to be having loads of fun, was produced by Les Films du Kiosque. Pathé Films is in charge of French distribution and of international sales.
(Translated from French)
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