• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

La Belle Époque: A clever and moving French comedy on nostalgia


 

LA BELLE ÉPOQUE
directed by Nicolas Bedos

A depressed husband takes a Truman Show-like trip down memory lane in Nicolas Bedos' third feature film.

Imagine you could go back through your life to relive a period that held special importance knowing everything you know now and with the hindsight to realise how significant it would be.

That is the conceit of brilliant French comedy La Belle Époque, a flawlessly crafted, frequently funny and surprisingly moving take on nostalgia and its ability to make us appreciate the present. Recently turned 70, the prolific Daniel Auteuil (Jean de Florette, Girl on the Bridge) plays Victor, a curmudgeonly cartoonist on the cusp of professional irrelevance, whose rejection of technology counterpoints his entrepreneurial wife’s passion for virtual reality. As the brusque Marianne, Fanny Ardant (8 Women, Elizabeth) shows her glamour has not faded over four decades in the business, and neither has her character’s caustic wit during their marriage.

As Victor and Marianne’s long union heads for the rocks, Victor takes up the services of a company that enables people to replicate another time and place to “live out” experiences, with period-perfect costume and set design. Some choose to insert themselves into famous moments in history; one chap just wants to spend time with his long-deceased “father”. Victor’s simple desire is to return to his youth in the 1970s, when a very special young woman once walked into a cafe …

Auteuil’s performance is as wonderful as anything he’s done, but the supporting cast deserves equal praise in this swiftly paced, engrossing and terribly clever film.

Guillaume Canet charms as the narcissistically damaged director whose obsession with his leading lady (rapidly rising star Doria Tillier) oscillates between abusive and loving, and all the bit players are deadpan hilarious.

Writer-director Nicolas Bedos has more credits as an actor and writer than he does as director, so it shows astonishing promise that in only his third feature at the helm he mixes wit, imagination and insight into this fantastically enjoyable romp. Even with evocations of The Truman Show and any of Charlie Kaufman’s movies, La Belle Époque feels startlingly fresh.

The film returns after charming audiences at last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival – so you, too, get the chance to make up for missed opportunities.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.