When the Alliance Française French Film Festival was suspended earlier this year because of the pandemic it seemed as if Sydney would miss one of its favourite events. It turns out there was no need for concern, as the AFFF came roaring back for a return season towards the end of July, and has seen individual movies such as House of Cardin, Deerskin, La Belle Époque, The Swallows of Kabul, and soon, Les Miserables and The Translators given theatrical releases.
From a critic’s point-of-view this comes as a huge relief because the quality of features making their way into the cinemas at present is woeful. For this column I’d hoped to sidestep the French connection but the alternatives were not worth contemplating. Neither the shallow action movie, Force of Nature, nor the even shallower romance, Made in Italy, invite extended comment. A brief expletive would suffice.
The French film de jour most likely to enjoy commercial success is Nicolas Bedo’s La Belle Époque, a wry comedy about nostalgia, and the desire to recapture the past. It’s a well-manicured production that gains immeasurably from the performances of two great French actors, Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant. It helps that they are such different types – Auteuil’s interesting, gnarled features being a perfect foil for Ardant’s seemingly timeless glamour. At the age of 71 she still smoulders.
The central invention of the movie is an agency that allows clients to travel back to a time and place of their choosing, perhaps spending an evening with Marie Antoinette or Hemingway. The feat is not accomplished with androids in the manner of Westworld, but with an elaborate, expensive stage design, and the kind of casts that would furnish the set of a motion picture. It’s a high-expense, high-return business that could only exist at a time when people have the money to spend on lavish fantasies. Want to dine at the court of Louis XIV or make amends with your deceased father? There is no obvious spending cap when it comes to realising a dream.
Auteuil’s Victor is an aging cartoonist whose marriage to Ardant’s Marianne, a psychoanalyst, has grown stale and sour. The story begins at a dinner party where Victor demonstrates his disenchantment with contemporary life, while Marianne – a passionate convert to new technology – snarls and snaps at him. Their son, Maxime (Michaël Cohen), has caused the friction by discussing an old schoolfriend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) who has started a thriving re-enactments business.
As a birthday present Maxime gives his father a voucher for a session with Antoine’s agency. After being ejected from their apartment by Marianne, a depressed Victor decides to use this gift. His only desire is to be transported back to a café in Lyon, in 1974, where he met this wife. “At the time,” he says wistfully, “it wasn’t horrible being me.”
Victor is utterly charmed by the care that is put into the reconstruction, and it would be hard not to empathise. While listening to Dionne Warwick singing Always Something There to Remind Me, he shaves off his grey beard, puts on the period clothes provided in his period hotel room, and heads to the café for his assignation with history. Cue the Monkees singing I’m a Believer.
Margot (Dora Tillier), who plays the young Marianne, is Antoine’s own love objet, and their relationship is a stormy one. During Margot’s romantic scene with Victor in the café, she and Antoine are having their own mini psychodrama via the earpiece that connects actress to studio. As the story progresses the lives of the couples become intertwined in increasingly complex ways. Margot’s attacks on the work-obsessed Antoine are hardly less savage than Marianne’s verbal assaults on her curmudgeonly husband.
As Victor sinks deeper into his love affair with the 1970s, Marianne pursues an unsatisfactory liaison with her husband’s ex-boss, François (Denys Podalydès). Inevitably, the lines between fiction and reality, past and present, grow obscure. Victor is becoming obsessed with Margot-as-Marianne, while Antoine is making himself jealous with his own imaginary scenarios.
All these tangles will be resolved by the end of the film, but there are plenty of ingenious touches. One curious side issue is that Dora Tillier and writer-director, Nicolas Bedo, appear to be real-life versions of Margot and Antoine. Knowing this, one can hardly avoid taking the script, and the obsessive focus on Margot’s beauty, as the director’s love letter to his own estranged leading lady. It adds yet another layer to the already complicated mesh of fantasy and reality, longing and regret.
La Belle Époque wants us to simultaneously feel the characters’ pain and laugh at them. It pokes fun at the pretentious intellectual mileu in which Marianne mixes, and her worship of the digital world. It portrays Victor as an old grouch who prefers the 1970s because it was a time when it was easy to tell left from right, and cars didn’t talk to their drivers. Only by a return to the primal scene of their first meeting can Marianne and Victor’s diverging paths be realigned.
For Margot and Antoine, the problem is to remove themselves from the world of make-believe where each earn their living, and discover if they really belong together.
Like so many French films, La Belle Époque plays in the most self-conscious way with the conventions of movie-making. When directing his time-travelling vignettes from a control room, Antoine turns up the music at climactic moments, and this is exactly what happens in the film we are watching. At every turn we are reminded of the highly artificial and manipulative nature of the cinematic medium, even as we surrender to its seductions.
We are left with an ambiguous, comic treatise on nostalgia. Is it a dangerous malaise that corrodes our grip on reality, or a necessary escape hatch from the deadening bonds of habit? When the present is insane it may be a rational choice to prefer living in the past.
La Belle Époque
Written & directed by Nicolas Bedos
Starring Daniel Auteuil, Fanny Ardant, Guillaume Canet, Dora Tillier, Michaël Cohen, Pierre Arditi, Denis Podalydès, Jeanne Arènes, Bertrand Poncet, Bruno Raffaelli, Lizzie Brocheré
France/Belgium, rated M, 110 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 August, 2020