La Belle Epoque

M, 110 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This delicious tale of lovers a half century apart is a postmodern romance. Part your own romantic adventure in an era of choice, part relationship drama.

Stalwarts of French cinema, actors Fanny Ardant and Daniel Auteuil, feature as a jaded older married couple, in a story intertwined with an affair in crisis between a young couple. As an entrepreneur and one of the actors he casts, Guillaume Canet and Doria Tillier play the latter.

The two veterans, Ardant and Auteuil as Marianne and Victor, are great foils for each other. She is utterly believable as the vibrant, frustrated psychoanalyst wife, while the chameleon Auteuil is spot on, unrecognisable in beard and moustache. A political cartoonist still valiantly wielding pencil and paper in the online world.

The new digital reality is something Victor doesn’t get, or want a part in. As a technophobe who doesn’t even own a cell phone, he is the butt of endless jokes, from the earliest (somewhat off-putting) scenes.

The crisis in their marriage has reached a nadir but it is made-in-heaven for the scenarist of La Belle Epoque, young director Nicolas Bedos. One of the funniest scenes takes place as they drive home in their Tesla. The self-drive vehicle lets them argue face-to-face, while GPS is telling Victor to extinguish his cigarette.

Marianne and Victor are the best of sparring partners. They have many difficulties including her open affair with, of all people, the editor, Francois (Denis Podalydes), who fired Victor from his job as a cartoonist.

At home in bed, Marianne is immersed somewhere inside her 3D goggles when Victor attempts to read his book. Things escalate cruelly for him and he is sent packing.

a meltdown with humour, generosity and wistfulness for what is past

It’s a sharp, witty screenplay from Bedos that plays both sides of the fence. It also steps back for perspective on how times have changed for each of them since they met.

Were things left at that level alone, we may feel we have squirmed in front of films like La Belle Epoque many times before. In the domestic battles that featured long ago in films like Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Ingmar Bergman’s haunting Scenes from a Marriage.

La Belle Epoque does not do that kind of total meltdown. It has humour, generosity and a wistfulness for what is past. This suits Auteuil’s dreamer who, although his satiric instincts are well honed, is not quite tethered to the new realities.

Time travel adds a delicious new dimension to this domestic drama.

Victor is offered a trip to an era of his choosing. It comes as a present from Antoine (Canet), who has been a friend of their son since childhood. He runs a business, Time Travelling Inc, that offers ‘tailor-made historical events’, professionally scripted and staged, for customers to take part in, travelling to a ‘belle epoque’ of their choice.

it flips back and forth between reality, artifice and the grey areas in between in a directorial tour de force

The tailor-made events could involve attending a party with William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway or playing the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette. Or might simply offer someone an evening of conversation with a parent who has passed away.

Antoine, a scenarist and director, has a sharp eye for actors that haven’t got themselves into character. He also has a sharp eye for anachronisms, which ensures that the immersive, attractively lit mise en scene constructed for these staged events enhances the total film experience for the cinema audience too.

Victor’s choice, as expected, is not wildly imaginative. He chooses the moment when he met Marianne at a bar in Lyon in 1974.

In another cross-current, Margot (Tillier), who Antoine is infatuated with, plays the part of the young Marianne. Antoine plays out his own feelings and manipulates her on screen.

Then Victor himself begins to develop feelings for Margot and tracks her down to the home she shares with a husband and baby. Or does she?

Time travel to the 1970s has some more entertaining possibilities than we see here, more than the boiled egg bar snacks. But the scenes in that decade are a fun and affectionate take on a decade swamped with change.

Keeping this ambitious and clever story together, flipping back and forth between the reality and the artifice and the grey areas in between is a directorial tour de force. Bedos’ next film will be eagerly anticipated.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 August 2020

*Featured image: With Margot (Doria Tillier) aboard, Victor (Daniel Auteuil) travels back in time