Among a number of highlights at this year’s festival is the second feature for young French writer-director (and actor) Nicolas Bedos. What the film-marketing business might describe (correctly) as a crowd pleaser, it borrows its title from the period stretching between 1871 and 1914, between the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the beginning of World War 1, which retrospectively became known as “la belle époque”. For those looking back on it, the 43-year era constituted a golden age, a time of hope and prosperity, especially in contrast to what had preceded and followed it. But while it does give its name to a setting in the film, la belle époque’s only real relevance here is its function as a metaphor for the protagonist’s experiences.
The film’s plot is relatively simple. Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is a sexagenerian who’s withdrawn from the world, or is at least trying to: a former newspaper cartoonist, he has no interest in the digital age or in the company of family and friends. His psychoanalyst wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), is understandably fed up with him, one night throwing him out of their apartment. Her frustration with his cantankerousness has already led to her having an affair with his best friend and former employer, Francois (Dennis Podalydes), and his ongoing surliness has become more than she can tolerate.
Taking pity on his sad case of a father, Victor’s filmmaker son, Maxime (Michael Cohen), gives him a gift voucher to a company specialising in creating fantasy worlds for people who want to go back in time, or who just want to escape the realities of the time they’re in. Run by Maxime’s boyhood friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), Les Voyageurs du Temp constructs what are effectively film sets for clients eager to step into the past. Time travellers of a sort. Initially sceptical about what the experience might have to offer him, Victor nonetheless decides that he’d like to revisit the day when he first met Marianne, to be exact, May 16th, 1974.
The fantasy trip into the past requires him to play a younger version of himself, sideburns and a moustache replacing his grouchy-old-man beard. Alongside him, feisty Margot (Doris Tillier) persuasively plays Marianne in her early twenties. Their rendezvous takes place in the bustling Belle Époque bar in Paris, extras in ’70s gear standing around smoking and leaning (“Quick, everyone light up,” the AD commands as Victor is about to step through the door), the bartender asking him if he wants “the usual” as he sits at his customary table and waits for the action to start. Although he, and we, know that it already has.
A central thesis of my recent book on Douglas Sirk (The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions, University Press of Mississippi, 2019) is that, in the worlds of his films, everyone is shown to be playing a role, an imitation of life if you like. Sirk’s point is that they’re all generally doomed by the mere fact of their humanity to remain completely, and sometimes tragically, unaware that this is what they’re doing. The key difference from that in La Belle Époque is that everyone in Bedos’s film knows that they’re playing roles; in fact, most of them are actually employed to play them.
Victor for a start. He’s the one whose life and whose dissatisfaction with it have set everything in motion. Margot isn’t especially happy about being involved at all, largely because of the unforgiving criticism that director Antoine, also her sometime lover, always seems to level at her thespian endeavours. Because of her discomfort, and to considerable comic effect, she frequently steps into a netherworld between her hostility to his directions (conveyed via an earpiece) and the role she’s supposed to be playing.
Around her and Victor, others frequently forget their lines – the play within the film has clearly been seriously under-rehearsed – and improvisation becomes the order of the day. It’s all a bit of a mess, actually, but Victor goes along with it, discovering in the process how much he’s enjoying himself, playing fast and loose with the meet-cute scenario he’s provided as the basis for the remembered incident. Do we trust his memory? It doesn’t really matter. He also falls more than a little bit in love with the glowing Margot, and even though he knows he’s chasing an illusion, he keeps chasing it – her – anyway.
La Belle Époque thus becomes a tale about the way in which nostalgia for a time past, and seemingly lost, can also lead to a rediscovery of life’s possibilities. To relive, even if it’s an act, can also be to revive. The question becomes whether or not the besotted Victor is going to realise that the mirage that Margot has manufactured for him is destined to remain out of his reach. With “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” (1964) turning up a couple of times to decorate the soundtrack, the film is essentially a romantic comedy, although its method is droll and knowingly playful.
At the start, Bedos deliberately confuses viewers about exactly what kind of a film they’re watching. First, a group of aristocrats in lavish 19th-century attire exchange unpleasant pleasantries around a meal table. That scene is then abruptly mirrored by one that finds Victor, his family and friends dining together, with Victor being introduced as a curmudgeonly technophobe and Maxime explaining Antoine’s business. Suddenly a group of masked men invade the aristocrats’ feast and shoot one of the guests, while others pull out their mobile phones.
At the same time as he’s telling Victor’s story, Bedos is wryly reminding us of the mechanics of filmmaking, of the ways in which the hidden hands behind the camera can manipulate our responses with a simple cut or a piece of music. When his actors need a little help with their emotions, Antoine provides an appropriate score through their earpieces. When their performances take on lives of their own, beyond what the script has provided for them, he might try to retain control, but he also comes to appreciate that improvisation can deliver its own rewards. And, in its celebration of the magic that can make a performance tick, La Belle Époque is pretty darn irresistible.
The Alliance Francaise 2020 French Film Festival opens around Australia this month. For further details and screening times, go to the festival’s website: www.affrenchfilmfestival.org