There was a time when French films were released in the UK on a regular basis, sometimes as often as one a fortnight. Now they are much rarer and when they do get a release it is only for a few single screenings. I made sure I caught this one on one of its four Bradford appearances last week. La belle époque is a starry romantic comedy that ought to draw healthy audiences. It opened on in the UK on 22nd November on just 23 screens. We did try to see it in London on the second weekend but the cinema was so small (the 2nd screen at the Lumière in South Kensington) that it was sold out. No problems for an afternoon screening in Bradford.
Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, this is a film which brings together elements of quite a few well-known films and genres. The central idea is that for a large sum of money an individual could be offered the opportunity to relive a particular event in his or her past (or an earlier historical event if they want to be present at an important moment in history). It isn’t an offer of time travel. Instead a company will build an authentic set and cast actors carefully to play the roles of significant characters. The whole event is then ‘directed’ live.
Daniel Auteuil plays Victor, a man in his late 60s seemingly ‘left behind’ by his wife Marianne, a leading psychiatrist (played by Fanny Ardant), and now generally at odds with the contemporary world of social media and high tech gadgetry. Victor is a graphic artist who seems to have almost given up the prospect of getting published again even though his son runs a publishing company. As a birthday present, Victor’s son wants to give his father a treat and he arranges an event to be re-created by his childhood friend Antoine (Guillaume Canet) the owner-director of the company. Victor decides to accept the offer (he once helped Antoine when he was a boy) and selects his first meeting with Marianne at a small café bar in Lyon in 1974. He even provides sketches of what happened on the day. The ‘re-enactment’ company then build a set in a Paris studio space and Victor takes the plunge. What happens next ‘on set’ and ‘behind the scenes’ then provides the entertainment for a narrative of nearly two hours. We (a couple who met at the roughly the same time in the 1970s) certainly found it an engaging and enjoyable ride. I should point out, however, that the opening scene of the film plunges the audience straight into a re-enactment and a violent incident that isn’t really in tune with the rest of the film. But it soon becomes clear what is happening.
The film pivots around ideas drawn from both romantic comedy and science fiction/fantasy. The scenario is reminiscent of both The Truman Show (US 1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US 2004). Both of these films have elements of comedy and romance. They also both star Jim Carrey but I’m not sure if that is relevant. Victor isn’t unaware like Truman that he is ‘playing’ in a re-creation and he doesn’t need his memories to be messed about by technology like Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine – though I need to think about that a bit more. The third film that sprang to mind was the rather different Ghost World (2001). The connection here is the idea of the graphic novel. In Ghost World the central character played by Thora Birch is a would be graphic artist whose sketches lead her to meet a man in a bar-restaurant played by Steve Buscemi. Ghost World is written by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novelist who has provided scripts for several films. Although these connections are all American, Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry and graphic novels are as important in France (as bandes dessinées) as they are in the US. I thought I hadn’t come across writer-director Nicolas Bedos before but now I realise I have seen him as an actor (e.g. in Populaire, France-Belgium 2012). Populaire now seems an interesting touchstone for this new film. Bedos has also been a TV comedy/satire star and his first film as writer-director was Mrs Adelman (France 2017). It wasn’t released in the UK as far as I can see. He starred in it with his partner Doria Tillier and she is also in this new film as Margo, the actor playing Marianne in the reconstruction and the real ex-partner of Antoine the director. I don’t need to spoil the plot, I’m sure you can see that we have two relationships and that they will get entangled in some way.
Bedos is clearly interested in ‘intertextuality’ – i.e. referencing specific films as well as broader genres. But he also has sub-texts he wants to explore such as critiquing a nostalgia for the 1970s that has developed under Macron (from the Press Notes). On the other hand, he does want to explore the visual images of the 1970s which he clearly finds appealing in various ways. There is quite a lot of 1970s (American) pop music in the film as well. We certainly enjoyed the film but it may be that my knowledge of 1970s France gained via movies of the time is not very accurate – I wasn’t aware that the drug-taking, ‘free love’ and hippiedom was as pronounced in France as it was in the US. In the UK outside parts of Central London it seemed more subdued to me. The four principals are all very good and I was especially impressed by Doria Tillier who has real presence. But I also enjoyed another chance to see Fanny Ardant, an actor I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years. Daniel Auteil still has his star power and La belle époque de-throned The Joker at the French box office earlier in November. I’m not sure what younger audiences will make of it, but it entertained us and did make us think of a time when nobody had phones to stare into and had to talk to their partners in restaurants. There are still a few UK dates for the film and it will be on VOD soon.