If you could go back to any time period in history, what would you choose? It's a wonderful question that sparks great conversations, and from dinosaurs to the moon landing, there are no wrong answers. It's a discussion that is proposed at the family dinner table in Nicolas Bedos' 'La Belle Époque', to which our disillusioned protagonist shamelessly replies, "Pre-historic, when I last slept with my wife." Sure, it's funny to hear, and laughter ensues around the table and cinema alike, but there is a deep pain behind his eyes that suggests that this is no laughing matter.
That's how we are introduced to Victor (Daniel Auteuil, 'Jean de Florette', 'Cache'), an ageing technophobic cartoonist living in the past. He's lost his job to videos, his favourite record stores to the internet, and his wife to his best friend. He laments how everyone stares at their phones, and that nobody has real conversations anymore. In an attempt to hold on to the past, he cuts himself off from the world and zones out of life - much to the displeasure of his wife and son, Victor just can't seem to adapt.
After being kicked out by his wife Marianne (veteran French actress Fanny Ardant, 'The Woman Next Door', 'Pédale Douce'), a light at the end of the tunnel appears in the form of a complimentary invitation to Time Travelers, a company run by his son's friends Antione (Guillaume Canet, 'Sink or Swim'), who re-enact any moment in history for their guests with actors, costumes and sets that beggar belief. In a beautifully touching moment, Victor chooses to re-live the moment he first met his wife - the 16th of May 1974. Complications arise when Margot (Doria Tillier, 'Mr & Mrs Adelman'), the actress playing his wife, who's also the on-again-off-again girlfriend of Antione, starts to elicit romantic feelings from Victor in a time filled with nostalgia and love.
I loved this premise so much. The idea of a time-travelling company used to explore the nature of memory, and refusing to adapt to the current climate, is terrific. We all know people who refuse to live in the current time - old souls that are fed-up and long for yesteryear. But Bedos doesn't criticise the present technologies, nor does he berate his characters for wanting what once was. Rather, he focusses on the repercussions of said decisions, and what it takes to move forward as a person.
Perhaps this premise was too complex and too good for a French romantic comedy to tackle. Thinking back to films such as 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' or 'Midnight in Paris', they know when to balance the light-heartedness against weightier themes that are more than just sweet meet-cutes. Bedos spends a little too much time trying to make audiences laugh that he forgets to add detail to the film's questions, such as what does it mean to live in the past, and would you do it all again knowing how it might end? Not wanting to spoil too much, it seemed like a lot of the issues raised were in one way or another solved by kissing and making up. Maybe we ask too much of this film, because ultimately it was a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience.
With charm and warmth at the heart of the story, it's little surprise 'La Belle Époque' received a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere.
With charm and warmth at the heart of the story, it's little surprise 'La Belle Époque' received a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere. Auteuil is a phenomenal leading man, bringing so much magnetic charisma to the role, and commands every scene he's in. I had a smile from ear to ear falling for his charm and humour. I had such fun witnessing the way they play with sets, and enjoyed peering through other people's (often troubling) dream-time destinations.
There are a lot of layers in the storytelling, and Bedos does a great job of pacing them, maintaining a good rhythm throughout. It allows for an easy and pleasant movie-going experience, highlighting how well the French know how to produce crowd-pleasers - and this is every bit a crowd-pleaser. The romance is so pure, and there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I would have liked to have seen more, because while it raises such intriguing ideas, and you're left feeling a bit hollow with how it all ends. It doesn't quite reach the heights of some of its cinematic predecessors, but you will leave with warm fuzzy feelings inside - and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.