The plot to Nicolas Bedos’ joyous French rom-com La Belle Epoque initially feels like everything we’ve seen before from the romance genre: An ageing man, Victor (Daniel Auteuil), finds his marriage with Marianne (Fanny Ardent) on its way out. She’s shacked up with a lover, and he’s finding it difficult to embrace life and love. Victor meets Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a man who might have the key to unlocking the vitality that once thrived in Victor’s life. Reluctantly, Victor takes up Antoine’s offer of ‘transporting’ him to the past, where he revisits the moment he first met Marianne.
Antoine runs a company that offers the chance for its patrons to experience ‘time travel’. Not in the science-fiction sense, but rather, his company meticulously recreates their clients desired era, with Antoine writing scripts for the plethora of hired actors, allowing the client to be immersed completely in the world and time of their choice.
La Belle Epoque opens with a horrifyingly hilarious pitch-black comedy moment, with the client having opted for an era that allowed for them to embrace open racism without criticism. The way Bedos throws viewers in the deep end is invigorating, especially after he immediately pulls the rug from everyone and subverts the scene completely. The tone is set, and the foundations for a genuinely heartfelt and loving film are established.
When Victor takes up Antoine’s offer to be taken back to the moment he fell in love with Marianne, he is dressed up in the same era-appropriate clothing he wore back then, with the company doing their best to make the 60-year-old man the 20-something year old he was way back when. There he meets a youthful version of his wife to be, Margot (Doria Tiller, giving a simply joyous performance), and the two recreate the days they fell for each other. As the charade continues, Victor finds himself falling for Margot.
Victor recalls a time of beauty and brilliance, of excess and ecstasy. Drugs were everywhere, sex was available for all, freedom was flowing. And in that era, that’s where he found the love of his life. By revisiting these moments, he’s able to recall and relive the time that he fell in love, and in turn, he’s able to remind himself why he fell for Marianne all those years ago. With those memories revisited, he realises what he risks to lose by not working on his relationship, by not being there as a husband for the wife he loves so dearly. La Belle Epoque reminds us all that we should not treat romance and love as a frivolous entity to be allowed to age and weather in the rains of time, and leaves you with the memory that love is something you need to work on to ensure it stays alive.
The layers upon layers that Bedos applies with his story are almost too plenty for a humble review, but it’s important to outline how masterfully Bedos manages to weave together a narrative about the complexities of time, of memories, and the fragility that comes with ageing. He acknowledges the failures of memory, the way it deceives us to forget the harshness of the past, how it encourages us to hold onto the moments we hold dear. On more than one occasion, La Belle Epoque states that while we may wear rose tinted glasses in our mind, the past is not always better.
La Belle Epoque feels like the kind of film you want your parents to see. You want them to be reminded of why they fell in love in the first place, to consider how they ended up where they were, and to remember that they need to continue to fall in love with each other. This is simply lovely stuff, and is a genuinely loving and romantic film, one that will leave you with a foolish grin on your face.
Director: Nicolas Bedos
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Doria Tiller, Fanny Ardent
Writer: Nicolas Bedos