Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, La Belle Époque is soaked in the bitter sweetness of nostalgia. The joy of reliving fond memories, and the pain of knowing that those times are gone. Witty and clever, Bedos’ script delivers regular laughs while simultaneously drip feeding you information at the perfect time. Antoine (Guillaume Canet) runs a company that uses elaborate theatrical methods to recreate any period in history. Clients hire them so they can attend elaborate dinner parties, drink with Hemingway, or get the chance to finally say what they’d always wanted to dead relatives. Antoine and co build sets, make costumes, hire actors, rehearse the scenarios, recreating everything as faithfully as possible, and then insert you in to it. It all runs like an intricate theatre piece, with Antoine directing the whole thing live from behind the scenes.
Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is an aging cartoonist lost in a world he no longer recognizes. The digital revolution has left him feeling disconnected. He doesn’t understand any of it and doesn’t want to. He feels like all these gadgets are getting in the way of his life. His wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant), however, thinks that the digital world is not the problem. The problem is Victor. So, during an argument, she kicks him out.
After Victor’s life is turned upside down, he is offered a gift. Antoine happens to be an old childhood friend of Victor’s son, and Antoine says that Victor had a huge influence on him as a young man and wants to repay him. When Antoine offers Victor one free day in any era he likes, Victor accepts and decides to revisit a night from his own life, in May 1974. Bedos has a lot of fun with those historical recreations, treating the productions incredibly realistically, and it’s often hilarious watching Antoine having to deal with underperforming extras, last minute cast changes, the limitations of the set, and more.
The core of the film follows two relationships; the disintegrating marriage between Victor and Marianne, and the tumultuous love between perfectionist director, Antoine, and his leading lady to the historical recreations, Margot (Doria Tillier). Auteuil and Ardant deliver masterful performances, hilarious while remaining understated and seemingly effortless. Much like the film itself, they have a very light touch, but there is a lot of complexity under the surface, and in the climactic moments deliver one of the more perfectly performed scenes I’ve seen in years.
Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography is excellent, cold and precise in the modern age, then bathing everything in a warm, hazy glow during our trips back to the seventies. Production designer Stéphane Rozenbaum and costume designer Emmanuelle Youchnovski work in tandem with Bolduc, crafting an alienating modern world, but recreating the seventies in a way that made me feel nostalgic, despite never actually living through that period.
Utterly charming and fascinating, La Belle Époque is definitely a crowd pleaser, eliciting many laughs from the audience. But it’s also an emotionally and intellectually complex film, with an inventive and fun premise and script. Full of joyful nostalgia, there was a smile across my face for most of the film, only fading because of the more dramatic moments. I may have been smiling during that climactic scene, but it was with tears in my eyes. An immensely enjoyable way to kick off the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival, I left the theatre feeling more alive than when I entered. In a way, I can’t think of higher praise.