2 January 2021

Nicolas Bedos's La Belle époque (2019)


This second feature by Nicolas Bedos took some critics by surprise with its intellegence and its complexity, although some thought the film was hopeless. Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is in his sixties and his career as a cartoonist has come to a stop, although he still draws. He's married to psychoanalyst Marianne (Fanny Ardent) who's having an affair with François (Denis Podalydès), Victor's friend.

The problem is that Victor is technophobic: he can't understand computers, doesn't have a mobile phone, hates his wife's GPS, and while in bed with his wife – who's wearing a virtual reality headset – he's reading Modiano's Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue. This title is significant because he sees the café La Belle Époque in Lyon as the most important turning point in his life, where he met Marianne.

The couple's rich son Maxime (Michaël Cohen) has a friend from childhood, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) – who's known and respected Victor – and to perk his father up he's given him an invitation to Antoine's Les Voyageurs du temps. This is a business for wealthy people which is a mixture of theatrical artifice and historical reconstruction in which clients can visit a studio set at any time they choose to live in for the day (or more) – they could be visiting Ernest Hemingway, Hitler, a king's court hundreds of years ago, etc. It's like a film set with actors playing their roles strictly according to the given period. Victor chooses to return to 16 May 1974, the day he met Marianne. The secretary takes his measurements to supply him with the correct clothing to wear, asks him questions about what happened on this occasion, what was said, etc, so that this can be reproduced. Victor willingly supplies the many sketches he made of the occasion: the idea isn't that Victor will be travelling back in time, but that the flavour of the period will return to him.

This is where viewers unfamiliar with French culture will miss out on a number of things that have been recreated when Victor visits the past, such as seeing Danièle Gilbert's golden moptop hairstyle on television; the six eggs in their holder in the bar; the Renaud lookalike in the corner with his guitar; the newspaper France-Soir; the Suze drink, and so on.

Victor is enchanted when he meets Margot (Doria Tillier) playing Marianne and asks her questions, the answers to which are provided by Antoine and his team swiftly consulting the internet and Victor's dusty drawings: they can see what's happening through a two-way mirror, and the actors have earpieces through which the information is conveyed. So far so good, and this is highly imaginative stuff.

The trouble is partly that fantasy mixes too much with reality. I found the second part both too contrived and predictable: the hippy scenes weren't convincing, especially the parody of the orgy; obviously Victor would fall in love with Margot; and Marianne – really irritated by François's snoring and even wearing her VR headset when he's licking her – will of course return to Victor. Yes, it had to be a happy ending.

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